Every church is a work in progress. Each congregation has some commendable qualities as well as some that need work. Those of you who are pastors can identify the strengths and weaknesses of your particular church. As a leader you want to press on, you want to bring your congregation more in line with the positive traits you find in the churches in the New Testament. You also want to bring the lives of those who sit under your ministry into obedience to the clear teachings of the biblical text. According to Ephesians 4:13 part of the task that has been entrusted to you is to bring your congregation to unity and maturity. But how do you do that? What are some of the practical steps you can take in pursuit of these goals?
There are, of course, no quick or easy answers to these questions. A lot of variables are involved, things like the history of the church you serve, the receptivity of the people to the Scriptures, etc. Nonetheless I believe there are some key biblical principles which can go a long way in moving a church toward a more complete biblical Christian experience. This becomes possible as each member of the congregation is changed a bit at a time. The changes that each member needs may be different, but the truths mentioned below have the potential to make a huge impact on a number of different needs. In the remainder of this article we will briefly consider three things that can impact the individual Christian, and as a result, help transform the church as a whole.
Exposition of Scripture
The importance of the Word of God is clear; the Scriptures are the revelation of God to us. Their significance in the life of the church can be seen from a number of biblical texts. In 1 Timothy 4 the apostle Paul urged Timothy to publicly read, preach, and teach the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13). At the time, Timothy was in the church in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). This church was troubled by false teachers and false teaching and was in need of change. In his second letter to Timothy Paul told him to “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2 NIV). Truth exposes error. The exposition of Scripture is to be one of the priorities when the people of God gather together. It is a tremendous responsibility. Paul told Titus his teaching was to be marked by “integrity, seriousness, and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:7-8 NIV). He told Timothy to apply himself to correctly handling the Scriptures (2 Tim. 2:15). These directives apply to those of us who preach and teach in the contemporary church. Instructing people in the Word is so serious that James tells us not many people should become teachers because of the great responsibility that is attached to the task (Jas. 3:1-2). Peoples’ lives are impacted by what they hear. Sound exposition of Scripture can keep people from error, or lead them out of it.
However, the exposition of Scripture is not just to refute error, as important as that is. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul tells us that the Word of God works in believers. This is true. The Word convicts us, comforts us, and changes us; it can keep us from sin (Ps. 119:11). Pastors do a great service to their congregations when they deliver a strong Scriptural message, one that is exegetically solid and has some substance to it. The Bible speaks of the milk of the Word and the meat of the Word (Heb. 5:12-14). Pastors should be laboring toward bringing everyone under their care toward the meat level. Following the example of the Levites in Nehemiah’s day can be helpful in this regard. The biblical text tells us they made the meaning of the Scriptures clear to their hearers (Neh. 8:8). This labor should be conducted with “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2 NIV). If people are exposed to the Word of God changes will come, because God will speak to His people from His Word long after the sermon is done.
Encounter with the Holy Spirit
The Scriptures can do much to help transform a church. They move us toward holy ways, work, and witness, they are relevant to all Christians. As believers we need our minds renewed and the Scriptures will help us do that (Rom. 12:2). But there are other things which also contribute to the transforming of a church. Another very important change agent is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. If the members of a church have an encounter, an experience, with the Holy Spirit it will do much to revolutionize the church. We cannot control the Holy Spirit. However, pastors need to be personally sensitive to the Spirit and help the people under their care to experience Him. This, in part, involves giving clear Scriptural teaching about the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
But it involves more than that. In addition to Scriptural teaching pastors should make room for the Holy Spirit to work in the gathered assembly. Worship is one place where this can be done. It is a Scriptural principle that when we draw near to God He draws near to us (Jas. 4:8). Having a good time of worship in the service is an invitation for the Lord to draw near and move. Pastors may also create space for the Spirit to move by not rushing the altar call or ministry time so that the Spirit can deal with peoples’ hearts. In addition, pastors can allow time for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to operate in the service. This may mean having a time of silence. I know this can be a challenge because some people become impatient (or uncomfortable) and others may not understand. But if you have ever witnessed the Spirit work in an individual or group of people you know it can truly be powerful. It is worth the price. And isn’t that ultimately what we want? We want God to move in our midst. Our service is not just to commemorate His great acts in history but to experience Him our lives.
I am sure most who are reading this article are Pentecostals therefore what I wrote in the previous paragraph may seem very elementary; I may seem to be preaching to the choir. However, when I was pastoring I was at one time very Word centered and did not give much emphasis to the Spirit. The Lord brought some people into the church who helped bring us more into balance; they moved us forward in the things of the Spirit.
As Christians we need to live in the reality that we are “the church of the Living God” (1 Tim. 3:15 NIV). The Lord should be allow to speak and move in the church as He sees fit. The Spirit’s work is the will of God. Every church has some type of structure or order of service. That is fine, but it should be flexible enough so that it can be adjusted or adapted to what God wants to do during any given service. As the church of Jesus Christ may we not grieve (Eph. 4:30) or quench (1 Thess. 5:19) God’s Spirit. Instead, let us fully cooperate with Him. The people of God need an encounter with God. If they have it, it will contribute to transforming the church.
Example of Church Leaders
In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 the apostle Paul provides lists of ministry qualifications for pastors/elders. These lists include behaviors that should mark the life of the spiritual leader and those that should not. These qualities are the ones God is looking for in those who serve in leadership in the church. They should also be the ones the church is looking for in its spiritual leaders. One of the main reasons for seeking people who exemplify these qualities is because they are to be examples. They are to show the members of the church what a committed Christian life looks like.
Example can be a powerful teacher. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5 Paul wrote about how he and his coworkers conducted themselves when they were in Thessalonica. He goes on to say that the believers in Thessalonica became imitators of them (1 Thess. 1:6). The Thessalonian Christians then “became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:7 NIV). So the pattern continues. On more than one occasion Paul held himself out as an example for people to follow (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Phil. 3:17, 4:9). He was not a unique case. Paul urged others who served in church leadership to be examples. He instructed Timothy to be an example (1 Tim. 4:12). He gave similar counsel to Titus (Titus 2:7). The apostle Peter when writing to fellow elders exhorted them to be examples to the other members of the church (1 Pet. 5:1-3).
In the contemporary church too, ministers need to serve as examples. We will not walk as perfectly as Jesus did during His earthly ministry, but we should seek to follow His example as closely as possible. This is not just for our own benefit, it is for the benefit of others as well. Paul told Timothy to pay attention to his life and his doctrine, because if he preserved in them he would save himself and his hearers (1 Tim. 4:16). This holds true for us today as well.
While we seek to bring our churches to unity and maturity (Eph. 4:13), let us follow the biblical truths that will move us toward these goals. The three I have mentioned above are good starting points. They can contribute much toward moving the church in the direction of the divine ideals. Diligence in these matters is important. If we sow, we will reap. In some cases results will occur more quickly than in others. The key thing is not to lose heart, but to remain faithful to the call that the Lord has place upon each of our lives. As Paul instructed the elders of the church of Ephesus, we too need to faithfully shepherd the church of God of which He has made us overseers (Acts 20:28). May God grant us grace to protect it and direct it toward transformation, so that it may be the church He desires it to be.
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including: the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.