This morning, there is no question that we live in perilous times. Some of the modern thoughts and pushes of man that seem to be gaining more and more traction seem absolutely incomprehensible to my mind. The underpinnings of morality and common decency are quickly fading in the rearview mirror to a large degree. Doubtless our forefathers in this country would be shocked beyond degree to see the current status of things in this country. Equally so, I believe many of the forefathers in the faith would be shocked to look at the state of things in many churches today. A while back, I remember reading an account of one of Elder C.H. Cayce's extended preaching trips that lasted close to a month in three different states. He lamented the coldness that had gripped Zion in many areas, and yet all historical evidence indicates that there were more churches and more congregants then than now. If he lamented then (less than 100 years ago), what sorrow would accompany today's state! However, one of the tragic things that can often coincide with these sorrowful circumstances is when misguided people zealously try to "fix" things in the wrong way. The "fix" ends up destructive, with the original problem all the while still remaining.
How many times today have you heard someone lament and proclaim something to the effect, "Our churches are declining. We are losing our children, and spirituality seems to be greatly lacking."? Personally, I have heard it quite a lot in the last few years, and certainly there is a plethora of data to indicate that in many places this trend is the case. To a Bible student, this should be unsurprising though still sorrowful. (II Thessalonians 2:3) Still, though the Bible talks of this falling away, that does not grant permission to sit back and say "oh well," but neither does it grant liberty to implement things that we "feel" that He has not commanded. Interestingly, it is my experience and observation that many of these well-meaning people not only follow a pattern for course correction in a church sense that is non-Biblical, but they also miss the mark on the truly biggest problems.
Before we launch into the pattern of dealing with church problems, I would like to solidify two points that could easily get overlooked after the previous two paragraphs. Point #1 is that the Lord's church will remain here in the earth according to God's promise as long as the world stands. (Matthew 16:18) Though there are declines and periods of languishing, one should never, ever get the idea that the light of the truth shall ever finally be extinguished from the earth. Somewhere there will always be a people worshipping God in spirit and in truth. Point #2 is that the Lord's church was set up in perfection, and that prescription laid out in God's word has remained perfect throughout the ages. Though ministers talk about correction coupled with rebuke, it is not a slap on how the Lord set it up. It is rather a declaration of how poorly we sometimes follow the prescription. Therefore, knowing that the Lord's church will not finally and completely die and that He set up a perfect order, how do we deal with the problems that so often penetrate our worship and disturb our peace and fellowship with the Master?
A good Biblical example of dealing with church troubles is to examine Paul's epistles to the church at Corinth, particularly the first one. No church that I have ever encountered had the level of trouble that Corinth did. They had morality problems, doctrinal problems, priority problems, church order problems, and a rash of improper attitudes. If you encountered a church that had their laundry list of issues, what would you do? Where would you start? Would you begin with the doctrinal issue of non-resurrectionism? Would you begin with the moral issues of a man having his father's wife? Paul did not address either of these problems until the 15th and 5th chapters respectively. However, his pattern for this troubled church in his early thoughts serves as a good example and guidepost for a proper course for us today.
In the opening chapters – 1st through 3rd – Paul addresses two main points that serve as the foundation points that should guide our decisions and proper order today. Without firmly establishing these two things, the other issues will never get sorted out. Strangely, these two points are either ignored or denigrated by those that attempt to "fix" things today. The first point is a well-grounded and firm conviction of the Personage and work of Jesus Christ. The second point is the uprooting and weeding out of idolatry in whatever form it takes. Unless we firmly grasp the foundation of Jesus Christ and exclude all other idols in our lives and churches, the other problems will continue.
Read through the first half of chapter 1 and count the number of references to Jesus Christ and His work. Without even a hint of the troubles at Corinth that Paul will later address, Paul firmly establishes the point that Jesus Christ should be the focus. Period. By the opening of chapter 2, Paul further establishes that this knowledge was all that he wanted to know and the only perspective he wanted to preach from. By the time he discusses foundations and buildings later in chapter 3, he has concluded beyond any question that no other foundation can be possibly considered as the base of the church's right course. (I Corinthians 3:11)
Have you ever heard people accuse the household of faith for preaching too much grace? Have you ever heard a preacher foolishly declare that we "have been rocked to sleep in the cradle of grace?" Friends, Paul was content that grace through Jesus Christ must be first and foremost in the minds of the members of our body. Truly, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is not that which causes us to slumber, but a right placement of that work energizes the heart of a child of God that no amount of bribery or extortion could possibly accomplish. By bribing people with functions, programs, and other activities, the members of the body are lulled into a sense of progress that distracts from Christ rather than focuses on Him the way the gospel does in power and demonstration of the Spirit. Scare tactics serve to torture the soul of the child of God rather than build up and edify the spiritual man as the gospel most assuredly does.
Mingled throughout Paul's opening remarks on the foundation of Jesus Christ is a sprinkling of a discussion about preacher worship. The Corinthians had bought into the idea that the messenger could be more important than the message. (I Corinthians 1:10-16) Paul furthers the point that real preaching (the power of God) should not stand in man's wisdom or man's knowledge. (I Corinthians 2:1-4) Finally, he concludes that the men who preach are just men who have functions and jobs they attempt to fulfill, but it is always God that prospers if there is a blessed outcome. (I Corinthians 3:3-6) What do these two opening points have to do with each other, and why are they the most important to set the stage for cleaning up the rest of the mess?
Many people today give honour and glory to Christ with their lips, and they may even heartily believe and support the message of Christ's finished work. However, where does the honour go in their steps, time, and service? Do they thank God more for the message or the messenger more for delivering it? Do they devote their time to adhering to the blessed gospel of grace through adoring service or do they seek the pleasures and pursuits of men? Paul's real-world example of preacher worship is something that still occurs today, but the heart of the point is more insidious than most people consider at first glance. Preacher worship is one of many forms of idolatry.
Many years ago, I heard a minister preach and say these words, "People talk about what the greatest threat is to the church today. Some say it is this doctrinal ism or that doctrinal ism. Some say it is morality. Others say it is a lack of attendance to the youth, and therefore we jeopardize the future of the church. The biggest problem in the church today is the same one it's always been: idolatry." The wise minister's words coincide beautifully with Paul's outlook. Paul understood that preacher worship was a jangling form of idolatry that served to esteem someone or something above Christ.
What about the moral question that plagued the church in chapter 5? Resolution of moral issues will never be fully realized unless someone has Christ first and everything else in its place. Paul says that the reason this problem continued was due to a puffed up attitude about it. Where does that stem from? Idolatry: putting our feelings above that which is right, without seeing Christ as the most important thing. What about misuse of the ordinances in chapter 11? Misuse of the table will not happen when someone keeps that noble sacrifice in the right frame and does not, in idolatrous fashion, put his own flesh above the noble remembrance of that sacrifice. What about doctrinal errors like non-resurrectionism? Doctrinal errors always stem from one or both of the following: 1. thinking too little of God, 2. thinking too highly of man. The idea of clearing out idols and elevating Christ above all will dispel the foolishness of vain jangling through heresy.
So what is the answer to dealing with church troubles today? How do these two main points that Paul uses set the stage for dealing with any circumstance? When people talk about declining numbers or spiritual stagnation today, how do we as ministers approach these dark days? First and foremost, we proclaim with fervor and passion that Christ is still on His throne. His hand is not slack, nor has He gone to sleep on His people. That grounding cannot be overly stressed as we mortals forget it so often in our daily slogs through the trenches. Secondly, we remind ourselves first and then those that we minister to that we are not our own, and He deserves our all. For example, when someone fails to attend service these days, how is it generally regarded? Most today simply shrug their shoulders or protest that they "had" to be somewhere like vacation, reunion, sporting event, etc. To the casual observer, this common practice is a "lesser sin." How does God view it? God sees it as nothing short of idolatry in putting self above the sacrifice of His Son. (Hebrews 10:25-29)
Most of our problems today boil down to idolatry, and idolatry creeps up on us when we esteem something through our thoughts, time, and energy more than the work of Jesus Christ. The thoughts of esteeming Christ and weeding out idolatry are so inextricable that one cannot fully have one without the exclusion of the other. The best way to deal with problems in the church is proper grounding of the work of Christ and casting down of all imaginations and idols in every form. Is it preacher worship, worldly pleasures, etc.? The "what" might change forms, but the root cause is the same. Why do people spend time trying to "save" the children through programs? They will tell you, "We're trying to save the future of the church." Friends, Jesus Christ is the past, present, and future of the church. My prayer and labour is that the children will be part of the church's future, but I should not idolize them by placing their importance higher than anyone else's welfare in the church.
Upon reflection, this writing is rather lengthy, but in closing, I would like to note that no matter the troubles that lay before us, we should not get cast down and depressed. Paul got firm with Corinth, but he never sounds wretchedly depressed. The longer I live and the more I labour, the more I am convinced that one of Satan's biggest tools against the church in general and the minister in particular is worry sometimes coupled with depression. Do we believe in the strength and Person of Christ or do we not? Do we believe He is above all things or do we not? If we do, then our mindset should be that of looking up to heaven for help rather than looking down on the discouragement of this cursed globe. Looking down is a good way to fall into idolatry, but looking up is a good way to keep Christ in view. May our services and churches look upward toward the source of all help and cast down anything that stands in the way.