Why Bother With Church?

Why bother with church? Do I really need to attend this Sunday? Do you find yourself asking these question? Sunday rolls around and you can think of ten places you would rather be. For some, this apathy is the result of making church about ourselves, what we get out of it. So when the church service stops delivering we stop attending. I have challenged this consumerist view of church previously (here and here). But the primary reason many of us wonder about the value of attending church is that we have lost sight of God’s purpose for gathering his people, wrongly believing you can be a Christian but not a churchgoer. The problem is that I do not attend church following God’s directives, which is why gathering can feel pointless. In this short post I want to pick out two reasons to bother with your local church, from Hebrews 10.

Empty churchHebrews is one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. There is almost no agreement among scholars about when it was written, who wrote it, why it was written and who it was written to. Aside from the lack of those details crucial for interpretation, Hebrews arguably contains the most technical rhetoric, not to mention a truly bewildering structure. The unfortunate outcome of these challenges to understanding Hebrews is that it receives little airtime, outside of proof texting. Apart from 13:8 — “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever” — and 1:1, the most quoted lines from Hebrews are, “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good works, not neglecting meeting with each other” (10:24-25). It was actually one of the first sections of Scripture I attempted to memorise. But like many readers of Hebrews today I did not give due consideration to its context.

Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that these verses fall into the fourth and final warning section of the book—the others are 2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 5:11-6:12; possibly 12:25-29. In 10:18 the author concludes the central exhortation of the epistle by emphasising that because of Christ’s singularly effective sacrifice: (a) sin is forgiven, (b) therefore no more sacrifices are necessary. His finished work is the cause of the Christian’s confidence to draw near and worship God (10:19-22), so we read, “Let us draw near” (10:22). But before we get to the verses we are reflecting on in this post we read, “Let us hold to the hope we confess without wavering, for the one who made the promise is faithful” (10:23). After them the author writes, “If we go on sinning deliberately after we have received knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). It is a terrifying warning. It is the negative implication of 10:18. Apart from Christ there is no forgiveness of sins, because no sacrifice for sin remains. It is within this larger section that the imperative to keep meeting together and encouraging each other is located. The day is approaching (10:25), so we cannot give up meeting and reminding each other of that day, urging each other to persevere. Those who turn away from Christ’s sacrifice have nothing but the fearful expectation of judgment (10:27).

Empty churchLinked to the above is the idea that church attendance is active, not passive. The author is not wagging his finger at those who bunk church. He is giving us a purpose for going to church and meeting with other Christians. “Consider how to spur one another on to love and good works…encouraging one another” (10:24-25). We saw above that this encouragement in intended to strengthen faith, helping our brothers and sisters persevere, but is one of your aims when meeting with other Christians to spur them on towards love and good works? I know that I fail on all accounts, regularly. Perhaps it is because the church is rife with consumerism or nominalism. However, the reason it is not true in my own life is simply that I do not obey God’s directive in Hebrews 10. Or, on the other hand, I have grabbed the convenient meaning in these verses — do not skip church — but ignored the responsibility given to me by God to: minister to other Christians. You may think that is the role of the pastor or preacher, but only if you ignore the obvious sense of these verses.

To summarise, we must commit to meeting with our local church for two reasons. Firstly, believers are in danger of giving up. All of us are regularly drawn away from Christ. The Christian life is hard, which is why God provides brothers and sisters to hold us accountable, to spur each other on as the day approaches. Secondly, this is the task given to all believers. If you feel that no one would miss you if you stopped attending your church it is probably because you are not actively ministering to others. We must reclaim God’s vision for church gatherings. Every Christian must remember that the Christian life is fraught with temptations to walk away. So let us consider how to spur one another on.

Pastor, You do not Release Potential

Discover potentialI was reminded recently in a conversation about Nicene Christology how crucial and significant our choice of words is. For the theologically uninitiated, that specific historical debate swirled around a single iota (Greek letter). Ink flowed at that time as theologians fiercely disagreed about how to most faithfully organise and communicate God’s self revelation in Scripture. Laying the political and personal agendas aside, we must surely conclude that precise terminology matters, which makes much of what I hear in the church today deeply disturbing. Though there are countless examples of careless wording to choose from — pastor as CEO or boss, eldership as board of directors, and target markets — in this post I want to address the language of helping people unlock their potential. And while the language of releasing potential is plied in a broad spectrum of churches and in numerous ways, for the reasons outlined below I think it is language we should avoid in the pursuit of clarity and faithfulness to the Scriptures.

Firstly, within the biblical economy of grace I am uncomfortable with the language of potential in principle. Carl Trueman writes in Grace Alone, “Grace is not God giving wholesale advice or a helping hand. It is God raising someone from the dead.” Later he writes, “The problems we face in our churches and in our individual lives are not ones that can be solved by mastering better and new techniques or simply by learning more information. We need more than how-to manuals and life coaches.” According to God, our problem is not ignorance of our purpose and the frustration of our potential. We are, as Paul regularly and not uncomfortably puts it: dead. The dead have no potential. At creation God breathed life into dust and today he breathes life into spiritual corpses. We do not need God to unlock our potential. We are lost unless he gives us new life. Hear Trueman once again, “We do not need spiritual healing, for that would imply we are merely in need of repair. We need spiritual resurrection. And resurrection is the unilateral act of God, not a cooperative exercise between the living God and the dead.”

FaithSecondly, and linked to the above point, our lack of potential is not limited to initial or saving faith. It extends into the Christian’s entire life. There is a well established biblical pattern of God using those who are weak in the eyes of the world. This is not because their potential was previously unseen but because his strength is made perfect in our weakness. To believe that we have some kind of raw and impressive potential reduces God to sports coach trying to spot future stars on the field. Listen to Samuel Rutherford, in his letter to Robert Gordon: I am “like one stupefied with cold under the water that would fain come to land but cannot grip anything casten to Him. I can let Christ grip me, but I cannot grip Him. I love to be kissed and to sit on Christ’s knee; but I cannot set my feet to the ground, for afflictions bring the cramp upon my faith. All that I can do is to hold out a lame faith to Christ like a beggar holding out a stump, instead of an arm or leg, and cry, ‘Lord Jesus, work a miracle’.” God does not link arms with the strong and influential to do great things, he lifts up weak and drooping arms and with them accomplishes his perfect purposes.

Thirdly, as D. A. Carson writes in The Gagging of God, the terminology of unlocking our innate potential is in fact borrowed from the New Age movement. Therefore, though using this language does not necessarily make your church New Age it might reveal that movement’s dangerous influence. Carson comments on New Age spirituality, “The aim is not to be reconciled to a transcendent God, who has made us and against whom we have rebelled, but to grow in self-awareness and self-fulfilment, to become self-actualized, to grow to our full potential, until we are rather more at one with the god/universe that we otherwise would be.” While I am convinced God directs, fulfils and gives us purpose, these experiences have little to do with my potential and everything to do with his grace. Churches that exist to help people discover their purpose laden potential are in danger of suggesting that God exists for me. He does not. He created you. Your life is his.

Finally, in many churches that I have visited, the language of releasing potential to powerfully impact our cities for Christ has supplanted – and in many cases – completely replaced the New Testament’s emphasis on obedience to Christ. This might be a good place to gently remind my reader that potential is not a New Testament word. On the other hand, Christ’s lordship, faithfulness, putting sin to death and living a life pleasing to God through fruitful obedience are words as well as themes found throughout. Perhaps you are sitting waiting to learn what your potential is, wondering when it might be made plain so that you can finally accomplish what God has planned for you. Stop. He has already told you what he desires: obedient worship and bold witness, in all of life. Sure, we are all unique but that does not mean any of us are or will be exceptional, once we unlock our potential. Most Christians will strive together with their church family to merely persevere until the end while glorifying God in the mundane. Words like faithful and godly may not be as sexy as releasing potential but they go much further in describing the ordinary life of obedience every Christian is called to.

How’s It Going? Part 6: Build your own

Idea generation pageThis is the last in a series of posts on church metrics. We’re going to close off this series with some how-to tips.

We’ve seen that a metric is any quantifiable measure, any piece of data, which is linked to a goal. The closer a set of measures identifies how we are doing in relation to the goal, the more effective it is as a metric. For example, if you play cricket and want to be a great batsman, you would measure your strike rate and batting average.

It’s a bit tricky to nail down what this would look like in any given situation, because life is incredibly colourful. That said, below is a set of questions to ask yourself. These will hopefully take you some of the way toward developing your own set of metrics that help you get to where you believe God wants you to be.

How would our ideal situation look and feel? Paint a vivid picture of where you want to be, in your mind or on paper.

What are some key ideals? From your vision of the future, list some key concrete aspects which can be measured (e.g. amounts, quality, characteristics, purchases, etc). Measure those.

How does our current situation look and feel? Like the above, consider the current status quo. Pay special attention to the differences between the future and the present.

What are the key differences to overcome to get to our future state? Your answer to this question may help you identify further important concrete aspects of the future which you can measure.

What impacts my list of concrete measures? Identify, with your team, as much of the funnel of inputs and outputs which have a bearing on your metrics above as possible. From that funnel, select the aspects which have the most significant impact, and track those.

How could people potentially manipulate these measures? If you can see a way to ‘game the system’, include measures to help avoid that.

What actions can I take to move towards that future state? Identify the actions you can take to influence the key changes that need to take place. Put these in your diary and stick them on your wall. Bear in mind that these may change, so use your metrics as your conversation partner, and constantly adjust.

And that’s that. Our series on metrics has come to an end. My hope is that it will contribute in some way toward us being more faithful in our service to the Lord who has commissioned us.

How’s It Going? Part 5: Pitfalls

Man stepping in gum on the street If you are gung-ho and ready to go, I want to help you avoid some landmines. Below are two common pitfalls. Avoiding them will save you much frustration.

Unintended side-effects

One of the major problems with setting anything up are the unintended side-effects that sneak up on us. That is just as true when considering how and what you measure. Why? Because people can’t help but play to the numbers. So, make sure your numbers have balances in place, and explain the rationale of each metric to those engaging with it.

For example, if we decide that maturity is best developed through one-on-one discipleship meetings, we may set the goal of getting all our people into meetings like this. We assign this to our ministry staff team, and decide that the way we will measure their performance in this area is by asking, “How many one-on-one discipleship meetings have you had in the last month?” One possible side-effect of this is that the team will drastically lower the quality of their meetings so they can churn out more meetings. And according to your scorecard, they’re doing great.

Measuring the wrong point of the process

Another problem is measuring at the wrong point. It is possible to assess an outcome when you are really wanting to figure out the impact of your actions on factors which influence the outcome. So, make sure you identify which stage of a multi-stage process you are wanting to measure.

For example, let’s say giving is currently down in your local church and your leaders have decided that, if the situation hasn’t changed by a given date, specified actions will have to be taken. They’ve appointed someone to attempt to get things back on track by then. When that person jumps in, they take a shotgun approach to seeing the needle lift on the total income graph – perhaps even throwing in a few unethical approaches for good measure. Now, if they are successful (or unsuccessful), how do you critique what they did and if they created the kind of change you wanted? Because of what we failed to measure – whatever impacts the end result [1] – we have to assume they did everything right (or wrong).

What other pitfalls have you noticed?

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[1] Perhaps the percentage of members who are giving and the percentage of new members who have received teaching about finances. Knowing the answers to those questions will give you far more insightful and actionable information than if you limited your attention to the bottom line.

How’s It Going? Part 4: A common objection

Confused dolls wondering who is winning and who is losingI want to address a common objection at this point.

One of the most thrown around lines in management blogs is “What gets measured gets managed”. This is held alongside “Measure what matters”. The idea is that we work to impact the numbers we are held accountable for, and so good leaders ensure people’s attention is focused on the right numbers. Some circles within the church respond to this by saying that the things that matter for us can’t be measured, because they’re invisible, bringing everything I’ve said to naught. How can you assign a number to an increase in love, or servant heartedness, for example?

Don’t miss the wood for the trees

The first thing to say in response to this is that, just because some things can’t be measured, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot within the church that can have a number assigned to it. Many of these aspects are important, and can be measured with basic metrics.

Know your role and focus on that

The second thing to say is that it is sometimes better to measure the inputs we are responsible for, rather than the results God is responsible for. Since love is something God is responsible for producing in Christians, something we have no direct influence on, we are better off measuring whether we are providing an adequate context for growth in that area. That would be the difference between saying, “We want our members to be loving” and “We want our members to have worked through teaching about love, to be part of a smaller fellowship group, to have a close friend in the church, etc”. This approach sometimes turns that which doesn’t seem measurable around.

Be realistic and creative

Lastly, there are times that what we are aiming at is our responsibility, but it is still subjective. For example, we could say we want our members to serve according to their gifts. Then we take the following approach: we ask a sample set of people to score a statement on a spectrum; something like, “My ministry involvement matches my gifts”, or “I see many people at our church whose ministry involvement doesn’t match their gifts”. That will give us an aggregate rating across a spectrum. Asking that same question, in the same way, over a longer period provides a temperature gauge. As soon as the temperature changes (when it deflects from the historical norm), we are moving closer to or further from our goal.

So, how can you put a number to the intangibles? Well, a few ways. Can you think of anything in church life my suggestions above wouldn’t cover?

How’s it going? Part 3: Why are external measures important?

Frustrated man in front of whiteboardThose of you who have made it this far may be having two responses: firstly, this sounds like a lot of work and, secondly, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

The reality is that most ministers serve in churches where they have intimate knowledge of almost everything that goes on in the church, from fire hydrant services to pastoral situations. Most information goes through them, and they are the clearing house for most decisions. Because of this, when they make decisions they are able to intuitively weigh more factors than even the most advanced system of analysis. I imagine it is from them that this hesitancy will come.

So, why introduce a system that slows you down? I want to suggest three reasons.

Firstly, you’re already doing it. Whether you like it or not, metrics pervade your world. When you decided where to work, what career to pursue, or even who to marry, you used metrics to make the decision. When you choose to buy an ice cream on the beach, or join a gym after your ice cream binge, you used metrics. When you evaluate your latest sermon, or consider how well your mid-week group is doing, metrics inform and shape that evaluation. God has made us as rational creatures, and metrics are just the pieces of info we pull on as we go about rationalising towards an end. So, I’m not asking you to do something you aren’t in some way already doing.

Secondly, I’m not saying you need to develop an advanced and cumbersome feedback system of endless spreadsheets and piles of paperwork. I’m suggesting you get clear on where you are heading and how you will know if your plans to get there are succeeding or failing. Now, that can happen in your mind. However, from those I’ve listened to and read, putting it in writing forces you to be clear and decisive in a way that we usually aren’t in our heads. Scheduling time to frequently review what we’ve written down, and evaluate how things are going, has the added benefit of providing a ballast when the waves of busyness come our way. Temporarily slowing down in this way can prevent the additional effort required when we wake up one day and realise we’ve drifted off course. It can also increase our effectiveness by helping us more clearly see the things that we need to say “no” to.

Finally, the New Testament envisages team leadership in the form of a plurality of elders. These elders are the guardians of God’s flock, and God will hold the group responsible for where the flock wanders. It is wise to listen closely to the senior minister (or rector, pastor, bishop), based on their insights into the situation on the ground, but it is unwise for the rest of this group to abdicate their role in being a guardian of God’s people by deferring completely to them. This is especially true of the church’s future. The senior minister will be wise to keep in step with the rest of the team by having a clearly articulated and agreed upon picture of where the church is heading – and a scoreboard, so it is clear how things are going.

I hope these three reasons go some way to convincing you that clear vision and regular review will assist you in being a more effective and faithful minister for our Lord Jesus.