There is an awful lot of thought and talk and hand-wringing today about what’s wrong with our churches and why church attendance is in decline in America. In my view many of these discussions are focused on the wrong things. So in an attempt to bring something meaningful to the discussion, I’ve distilled much of my thinking over the past decade into what I’m calling my five immutable laws of the Christian faith.
I intend for these to serve as touchstones for people and for churches to check ourselves. Maintaining vitality in these five areas will, I’m convinced, guarantee that we’re at least moving forward in our faith and in our ability to positively impact our world for good.
1. There is a God and he is alive. God is not absent or distant. He’s not merely a mental construct or someone we read about in a book. This sounds like one of those “duh” statements that for Christians should go without saying, but I see Christians everywhere living without any real connection to or engagement with the God they profess and who they claim to serve. They’re good people, following the rules and adhering to the plan, but they’re doing it all largely without God, and mostly on their own power. Furthermore, I see churches all the time that I think could continue to function just fine — business as usual — if we all woke up tomorrow and discovered that God isn’t real. A minister friend of mine at a large, thriving church says most churches are concerned primarily with the three “B’s” — butts, buildings, and budgets. I think there’s a fair amount of truth in that. We’ve spent much time creating church members, very little time creating engaged followers of Jesus (the Bible calls us disciples). That’s a bit strange, since disciples are what Jesus called us to make (Matt. 28:18-20). Much time and effort is spent studying about God, managing his business (as if God had business that he needed us to manage) and going through the motions of faith, but without any engagement with God as a Real Entity and learning to live in a trusting relationship with him. Everything we are and do as Christians must be saturated in the awareness and expectation that God is an engaging Presence in the midst of it all.
2. God wants to have an engaging, personal relationship with every Christian. That means that every Christian can expect to hear from God for themselves. While there is undeniable value in sharing one’s faith journey with others who are on that same journey (and in fact I don’t know how you walk with God without walking alongside his other children), my relationship with God is my own. And so is yours. And while it is certainly beneficial to process what you hear from God and the nudges he places upon your heart with other trusted sojourners, you don’t need anyone’s permission to follow what God directs you to do. Nor is a relationship with God dispensed or managed through or by others. I know God and he knows me and we’re doing this together.
3. Church = family. The church is not an institution or an organization. It is a family. And it should function as a family would function, which is very different from how a corporation or an institution functions (and how most of our churches tend to function). The church is much more of a circle than a triangle. All healthy families are built around mutual love, unfailing support, and the expectation of growth to maturity. So should our churches be.
4. Spiritual maturity involves four things (Eph. 3:14-20): 1) A growing awareness of God’s love, 2) Deeper and more thorough trust in God, 3) Greater wholeness as a person, and 4) Sound theological thinking and reflection (please click that link to see what I mean by the word “sound”). Together, I think these four things encapsulate what Paul is praying for on behalf of the Ephesians in Ephesians 3:16-19 – the idea of being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Tragically, churches have most often focused primarily on developing #4, while at best assuming the rest.
But if we are to help our people reach maturity, we must do a significantly better job of nurturing all four components. Learning to live loved is more than learning that you are loved. It’s learning to live secure in the conviction that God loves you desperately, stubbornly, and to filter all of life’s happenings through that conviction.
And as helpful as theological education can be in understanding the love of God, learning to live loved is not something we merely study our way into. Rather, it’s a place to stand or a state of being that God himself wins us to. Nothing more changes the way we view ourselves, our circumstances, and those around us than learning to rest in the reality of God’s love. Trust flows from this growing awareness. You will never trust someone who you are not convinced loves you, and who you have not experienced as trustworthy. And the truth is that most of us are not nearly as certain of God’s love as we could be. Thus trust is not merely a concept, but is relational in nature and requires personal engagement with the living God.
Wholeness involves not just theological education, but also emotional and behavioral health. Emotional intelligence (or its casual shorthand, EQ) has been called by Peter Scazzero “the inseparable link between emotional health and spiritual maturity.” He concludes that “it is not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.” Emotional health involves four competencies: self-awareness (what is going on inside you), self-management (emotional self-control and adaptability ), social awareness (attentiveness to the emotions of others and the capacity for empathy), and relationship management (the capacity to respond constructively in conflicted situations, with loss, or with the need to inspire, build teams or develop others). In her book Rising Strong Brene Brown says, “While some researchers and clinicians argue that you can change your life by just changing your thoughts, actions, or feelings, I’ve seen no evidence in my research that real transformation happens until we address all three as equally important parts of a whole, parts that are inextricably connected to one another, like a three-legged stool.” Spiritual growth involves learning to pay attention to all three, and it is just “not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.” Learning to think soundly theologically is also something that does not occur in the abstract, but in conversation with Scripture, with the rest of life, and with others who are on the same journey.
5. Because all of the above is true, the role of leaders in God’s family is primarily one of loving spiritual nurture. Spiritual leadership is not corporate management or institutional protectionism. In fact, if church = family, leaders might well be thought of as the spiritual fathers and mothers of the group. They are not rulers or managers or boards of directors. They are nurturers, loving their “children” as God does, drawing them into deeper knowledge of, dependence on, and trust in God, and into greater wholeness in him. As shepherds, their primary work is what should be thought of as soul care. Of course, it goes without saying that love begets love, wholeness begets wholeness, and trust begets trust. You cannot give what you do not have, so the primary quest of leaders must be learning themselves to live loved, deepening their own trust in God, growing in their own wholeness, and engaging in sound theological thinking and reflection. And churches have no business appointing elders or ministers who are not heavily invested in these things personally and frankly, who are not far enough down that road to nurture others.
After several decades of studying and growing, observing and reflecting, I have come to believe that these five laws must be embraced if the church is to reverse its current trends and become an effective witness to God in this world. Anything we are or do as Christians must be built on these understandings and emphases. Any part of our church existence that is not built on these five pillars will at best produce a mutation of the Christian life and a severely handicapped version of the church.