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  • Writer's pictureDr. Nathan T. Morton

Church Survival 3: Rage Against Dysfunction

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

A troublemaker is someone who rocks the boat and then declares there is a storm at sea.

The offerings for that month of December were a little more than 111 thousand dollars. A month earlier the church treasurer had given the financial report with as much vinegar as possible. After noting that donations from the previous months had been below the approved budget he then stated, in a “the sky is falling” way, that the ministry could potentially be in danger of foreclosure if this trend continued. It did not matter that the donations exceeded actual spending or that the current trend was relatively short, he did what he came to the meeting to do. He wanted to convince the congregation to fire the pastor, so he colored his report with ominous clouds, bleak skies, and impending doom.

Thankfully the larger congregation, noticing the spin, gave with unbelievable generosity the next month. Surely the treasurer’s next report would now be filled with blue skies and sunshine. Nope. “Yes,” he said, “the church is in the black. Yes, we’ve got a bit more money in the bank than we’ve had in previous years, but we can’t expect a 111 thousand dollar offering every month.”

It should not be surprising that at that moment something inside the pastor broke as he realized the depth of dysfunction in the church he pastored. Have you ever desperately wanted to stay and leave at the same time? That is where he was, and the internal conflict was unbearable. Who wouldn’t want to shepherd a flock that would give so generously to encourage their pastor? At the same time, who wouldn’t want to flee a church where such evil lurked in the hearts of the ensconced leadership?

He had arrived at the church believing he was called to be their Pastor. The influential few believed they had hired him to be their clinical chaplain. There is a great difference between being called and being hired or between a pastor and a clinical chaplain. The difference is in the priorities. A “called” pastor spends most of his time praying, studying the Bible, preaching, evangelizing, and making disciples. A “hired” chaplain spends the bulk of his time in convalescent homes, at bedsides, and visiting the membership. Both the pastor and the chaplain do all of these things, but they differ to the degree in which they are done and in what comes first,

This type of misalignment in expectation is often symptomatic of dysfunction. Sadly, people in these churches often live in denial of their dysfunction—either they are embarrassed to admit it, ill-equipped to deal with it, or just blind to their plight.

As critical issues are ignored and reality is rejected, religious and economic caste systems, silos, bitterness, and jealousies, silently develop below the surface. If someone hazards to address the dysfunction and work to correct it, they are at risk of being shamed or punished. “You are the worst pastor we have ever had.” That was the text that came in a little after 4 in the morning. It didn’t matter how many congregants adamantly disagreed with that sentiment, that sentiment was the one that pierced the pastor’s heart the deepest.

As the boat was being fiercely rocked by the institutionalized dysfunction and as the cries of “storm” echoed down the church hallways and into the local restaurants it became clear that three things were necessary if the church ever hoped to regain its spiritual health.

It needed a church polity that would be conducive to overcoming dysfunction. This would mean discarding the old polity that now contributed to the current dysfunction.

Paul wrote to Titus that things in the church at Crete were out of order. The Apostle does not tell us how the church got out of order, that would have been gossip. He does, however, tell us the first step toward healthy order.

For this reason, I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5)

Nowhere does the Bible prescribe any model of church government as the only correct one. Churches led by a solo pastor are not condemned, and why should they be? Church plants often begin with a solo pastor. However, Paul’s advice to Titus for bringing order to Crete by appointing elders was apparently a common practice in the first century. (Acts 14:23)

It needed to understand the true nature of the church. If we are wrong about the nature of the church, we will be wrong about the cure for its maladies. Best practices for businesses, welfare agencies, and hospice (to name a few) are not best practices for the local church unless the nature of the church is the same as that of a business, welfare agency, or hospice. The same can also be said regarding church ethics or measurements for success, and health.

The grand error underlying so much of the modern church growth movement is a misunderstanding of the church's true nature. In just two sentences (Eph. 4:11-16) Paul helps us to understand the church’s nature, constitution, and purpose.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph. 4:11-16)

  • The make-up of the church is one of various parts, callings, gifts, orders, and roles. The church itself is a complementarian community and that is by design. Just as we need the various parts of our body to accomplish necessary tasks, so does the body of Christ to provide and ensure spiritual strength, maturity, and health.

  • The church is a body with characteristics like the human body. This means the church is susceptible to sickness, in danger of disease, and responsive to healthy measures. As parents, we have some power over our children’s well-being. Although we cannot change their eye color nor height, we can (to some degree) guarantee their health.

  • Church health has nothing to do with size but everything to do with spiritual maturity. A dysfunctional church, regardless of size, is a dying one. Older churches have roots that go much deeper than those of a new church plant and so they die at a slower rate, but they are dying nonetheless. The appearance of life may be nothing more than an illusion created by deeper pockets, a false narrative reinforced by the longevity of existence. Unless believers individually and corporately are consistently increasing in spiritual maturity the whole thing is pointless.

In his “Deacons Partners in Ministry,” Jim Henry tells of a church that closed its doors and posted this sign on the building: “Went out of business because we did not know what our business was.” Another truism that has been floating around in recent years is “The greatest failure is to be a success at the wrong thing.” Both statements are insightful.

Until we understand the true nature of the church we will continue succeeding at the wrong things, have misplaced priorities, achieve the wrong goals, and mistake worldly success for spiritual accomplishment while rushing headlong toward ultimate death.

The local church is many believers made into one body through Christ’s redemptive work and because those believers all belong to Christ ipso facto they all belong to each other. (1 Cor. 6:19-20) The purpose of this corporate body is to announce and promote Christ’s claim upon all people by declaring the glorious gospel of salvation in word and deed to all people.

It needed to embrace its primary mission as the first thing. The church is not a business providing resources for existing customers while seeking to attract new ones. The local church is not a welfare agency working to reduce the discomforts of this life. The church is a foreign embassy for the kingdom of heaven desiring to glorify God by seeking to bring citizenry into God's kingdom. Standing on the church porch the man said, “You know there are just some people who don’t belong in this church.” Sadly, he had completely missed the church's primary mission.

If we neglect our primary mission we are doomed to become something other than what our Lord intended. We will feverishly go about doing our righteous deeds until one day we look around and realize the Lord has long departed.

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his work “Christ and the Culture,” the church puts together social ministries and then stands around congratulating itself for transforming the world never noticing that in fact, the church has not changed the world, the world has tamed the church.”

I am convinced that there is nothing more important or necessary in our present world than the church rediscovering its nature, remembering its calling, and renewing its commitment to the mission of the great commission.

After years and years of dysfunction, a church can become hardened and reluctant to admit its missteps and decline. And, even if it does there is still a tendency to refuse ownership of those missteps by casting blame elsewhere.

This does not have to be. Let us be bold. Let us own our mistakes. Let us fear God more than we fear embarrassment. Let us humble ourselves before our Almighty God and plead to Him for a fresh outpouring of His Spirit. If we do, He will hear us and when he does we will arise, arm ourselves with His truth, and rage against the dysfunction! Our Lord deserves no less!

The martyrs endured what was inflicted on them because they sought not their own glory but only to reflect the glory of the One who endured and triumphed through the cross and resurrection. The martyrs did not try to guarantee that they would be remembered and glorified by the standards provided by the world. Yet the martyrs quite literally glow, radiate a light so brilliant it cannot be denied, because the light that enlightens them is that which is but a reflection of God’s glory. – Stanley Hauerwas “Without Apology”

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