Category Archives: Church Unity

Man-made Unity: Moths to a Flame

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Genesis 11:1, 4-6

There is something utterly intoxicating about banding together with others and overcoming obstacles as a team to achieve something significant. Perhaps you have experienced it. If you have ever been on a team during a championship season, or a part of a military division who survived under daunting circumstances, or shared some life-changing scenario with a group, you know the feeling. I felt it having survived the rigors of law school with my classmates. There is this overwhelming sense of everyone having pulled together and accomplished something bigger than any of us thought possible. Working together, everyone pulling their weight, fighting through struggles, and winning. It’s a good feeling…one which often binds a group together for life.

We have a lot of names for it: team chemistry, “family”, camaraderie, esprit de corp.  But no matter what you call it, it is a good thing…a powerful thing. There have been times when we felt it as a country here in the U.S. The last time was probably just after 9-11, when we had identified a common enemy and we banded together as a country, building (short lived) bridges across …

Church that Defies Conventional Wisdom

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. Genesis 6:13-14

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5

When it comes to building churches, there is no shortage of conventional wisdom. And in matters of church growth, church finances, and (alas) church conflict, the “church world” is loaded with advice and counsel. Moreover, add to that the wisdom of the secular world about how to build a corporation or how to lead an army or how to have a winning team (much of which wisdom gets imposed on church leadership), and you could fill a library with all the ways that it makes sense to build a church.

But God is not impressed with our conventional wisdom…never has been. At a time when the world had never even seen rain before and over a project schedule of some 100 years or so, God had Noah build an ark. On dry land. In the middle of a wilderness. There was absolutely nothing conventional about it. In fact, Noah was surely considered to be a crazy old drunk by pretty much anyone who knew him during this time, and his “project” was 100 years of sheer nonsense.

So, as I consider how incredibly closely Noah had to be walking with the Lord in order to rightly understand his assignment and to then fulfill it, I am captivated by the thought of just one church, one local body of believers, equally sold out and tuned in to God. Can …

The Blinding Power of Bitterness

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7

blind bitternessAt the very front end of Cain’s anger and frustration, before it had lead to anything permanently damaging, God warned him.  “Cain, you better get control of this anger, or it will get control of you.”  Well, that’s my paraphrase.  God was warning Cain about a part of the human condition to which we often turn a blind eye: anger is not something to leave unattended.  Unresolved anger, you see, turns into bitterness.  And bitterness, over time, is a disease that spreads into our heart, our eyes, our brain, and a host of other places.

I have seen it way too many times in my ministry to churches in conflict.  When passions get high and anger is left to fester over time, finding the truth about what really happened can become nearly impossible.  That is because anger makes for a horrible historian.  It twists the truth and blinds us to what really happened.  The longer we stay angry, the less credibility we have for reporting what happened.  However poor our retention rate is for facts and figures we have seen or heard, our retention rate for what we felt is almost perfect.  So, in situations which anger us, if that anger is left alone to do its dirty work, we later remember how we felt and then back into the rest of the facts in a way which supports how we felt. In other words, our brain fills in the gaps and recalls events in a way …

Who Will Carry You?

And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:3-5

Who, in your life, are you certain would do this for you? What relationships have you nurtured and developed to the point you can now count on them to be there for you when you most need someone to carry you? And you will, at some point, need someone to carry you…we all do.

carrying-a-personIn his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know ThemJohn Ortberg refers to it as “the fellowship of the mat”: that hard reality that, at some point, every one of us will need to be carried…will need to be loved by a few people who will go above and beyond the call of normal friendship duty and will carry us extraordinary lengths in order to get us through whatever dark season awaits us. We will all be called upon to do it for someone else at times and we will all need someone to do it for us.

But having those kinds of relationships in our lives does not happen accidentally. Whether it is family or just close friends, the truth is, those relationships are hard work, and not all of us are necessarily up to the task. This reality does not sit well with our current culture. Much of the cultural pressure today is toward a kind of love or acceptance or affirmation that is devoid of any hard conversations or difficult truths (or any truth at …

The Key to Your Church’s Strength

And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” Judges 16:17

 I in them and you in me,that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:23

strength relationshipsI remember Samson (of the Bible) holding “superhero” status in my mind as a child. Studying his tragic story now as an adult, I realize his character flaws throw a very different light on his super-human power. Isn’t that what intrigues us about God’s story? It is told through the lives of so many horribly flawed–even dysfunctional–people. 

That is one of the ways of God: to use markedly flawed people to accomplish His will. It is intriguing about Samson and it is intriguing about the church. We are all flawed, and yet (like Samson) we, the church, are filled with God’s Spirit and collectively empowered to represent His spiritual authority in this world. Samson was a tragically flawed hero of God’s story, and Christ’s eklesia is likewise embarrassingly flawed. I’ve written about that here.

But also like Samson, the church has a peculiar source of its strength…a “lynch pin”, if you will, to all that empowerment God promises us. For Samson, it was his hair. But for the church, it is our relationships with one another.

We can talk about the power of prayer (if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven); we can talk about …

Small Groups are Key to Church Unity

Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation.  I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.

small group

For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.

But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about …

The God-Forsaken Church

Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. And she named the child Ichabod, saying,“The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” 1 Samuel 4:19-22

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46

old church 2It was actually more years ago than I can remember…I was sitting with a church leader while her church was in the midst of turmoil and conflict and she was sharing the litany of painful circumstances that had befallen her church. It was just one horrible thing after another after another after another. It was startling. And then she said this: “It feels like God has written ‘Ichabod’ over our door. We are a God-forsaken church.” I had a vague recollection of the biblical reference but will admit to you now I had to go back and read the story again out of 1 Samuel.

Eli (the priest) had sent his two ungodly sons into war with all their Israeli brothers in arms to fight the Philistines. It did not go well. Both sons were killed. Israel was horribly defeated. and the Arc of …

The Parable of the Unmerciful Driver

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22

The kingdom of Heaven is like when you’re driving home on Friday evening and the interstate is a parking lot with cars bumper to bumper for like miles and miles and there is this one pitiful car trying desperately to get in line but nobody will let him in because everybody is being a jerk and this poor guy is sitting there with his blinker on waiting and waiting and waiting and so you decide to be the good guy and you let him get in front of you. Good job. You are a Christ-like person. But then along comes another pitiful soul in the exact same situation and he pulls up along side the first guy hoping the first guy will let him get in front of him because he’s thinking, “this guy just had mercy shown to him so surely he will show a little mercy as well” and, frankly, you’re thinking the same thing which is why you are so angry when the first guy WON’T BUDGE and will not show any mercy at all to the second guy. Suddenly, you’re not thinking nice things anymore. You just want to do physical harm to the first guy’s car for being such a jerk. You’re thinking, “Hey, I showed you some mercy, what’s your problem!?” And that is like the kingdom of heaven.

As a church mediator working with conflicted congregations, I have come to believe that the sin posing the most significant threat to church unity today is the sin of unforgiveness. I cannot …

The American Church: Tempted in the Wilderness

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1

The church in America is in the wilderness. That’s not such a bad place to be. It’s a difficult place, often a painful place, but it’s a place God often leads his people when He has some difficult lessons to teach them or preparations to be made. And the American church certainly has some difficult lessons to learn. Moses learned in the wilderness, as did Elijah. The people of Israel learned in the wilderness. And Jesus went there as well, where he experienced some critical “perspective builders” in the form of temptations. The American church, while in the wilderness, is experiencing temptations as well. If there were ever a story written about it, the way Jesus’ story in the wilderness has been written, the enemy’s temptations of the church might go something like this…

temptationsI. The devil said to them, “If you are the Church of God, tell these people to become members.” As bread represents a basic necessity for our body, believers (i.e., members) represent a basic necessity for the Church. There is not a church leader anywhere who, when describing the church he/she serves, is not tempted to describe it at some level in terms of number of members. It is one way we measure our effectiveness in mission. Every evangelistic outreach is measured this way. And since we all want to be seen as “successful”, the temptation here is to move as many bodies as possible from the “prospect” category to the “member” category as quickly as possible. The temptation is to use emotional pleas, scare tactics, or other forms of manipulation toward an all-important “decision”. And what the church is left with, especially over the long term, …

Gospel Centered Worldview: All Lives Matter

 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. Romans 1:14-15

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. 2 Corinthians 5:16

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:27-28

all lives matterPerhaps nobody in Scripture went through a more radical change in worldview than the Pharisee named Saul. As a Pharisee among Pharisees, he thought he had the world figured out. He had the puzzle all put together and, though there were some inexplicable gaps in the picture here and there, it all made sense…basically, anyway. According to that worldview, the missing pieces would be filled in when the Messiah comes. And in that worldview, there were two kinds of lives in this world: Jewish lives (which mattered) and all the others (which mattered less).

Twenty years later, as a converted Christ-follower writing to churches in Corinth, Rome, Galatia, et. al., he would show astounding wisdom and a very different worldview…a gospel centered worldview. According to that worldview, the Messiah had already come and we already had all the pieces there are to have…and they all fit together more perfectly and completely than he could ever have imagined. No more inexplicable gaps. It was a beautiful and perfect worldview. And in this new worldview, all lives mattered.

In the 2,000 years since Paul’s written presentations of this new way of seeing the world, many other worldviews have come and gone. And today, in the U.S. alone, scores of different …