Sunday, 20 August 2017

Love the Church, love the people, warts and all.

What do you do when an influential church member comes to you demanding that you ostracise another member from the youth group just because he is dating his daughter?

What compounds it is that he has been with you through thick and thin since the first brick was laid and has been rather generous in his tithes, offerings and occasional love gifts? 

Here's another crunch. What do you tell a young couple with a toddler when they tell you that they are leaving the church they have grown up with because the church does not provide the same quality childcare services as another church does? 

How about this one. Where do you draw the line between being sympathetic to the genuine needs of the members and being indulgent of their calculative, fastidious, and sometimes, unreasonable demands? 

How far do you go with what they want, how they want it, when they want it, and for how long they want it? 

I know as church leaders you are called to love your neighbor, warts and all, but how should you mediate the conflicts of interests between the mindless demands of growth and the restless cries in your heart to remain authentic to the faith?

The reality is, some members will wear you down. Some will challenge your belief in humanity. Some will question your leadership when she doesn't get her way. Others will just talk behind your back - rather annoyingly, to put it mildly.

And it gets worse with the office staff and the pastoral team. Some churches are built upon both the shamrock of Christ and the cult of personality. 

The pyramid of leadership reaches up to the pinnacle of one or two charismatically glowing personalities, who are incidentally also the founders of the church. Being the founders, they control almost everything, that is, the church and all. Putting it bluntly, you can say that they own it; brick and mortar, paint and quota. 

Take them away from the churches' equation, and the church is effectively headless, so to speak. Unfortunately, by way of perception, they are quite indispensable.

So, what do you do with a church that is based on the sole authority of one or two leaders at the top who effectively runs the show, calls the shots, brings in the crowd and draws in the funds? 

Surely, disagreeing with them in your subordinate pastoral role or church office staff position would somehow dim or sabotage your career prospect in the church right? Alas, the politics in church is sadly no different from the politics in the world, save that the former starts and ends every meeting with a word of prayer. 

Charles Swindoll once wrote that as the church grows rapidly, it runs the risk of "replacing volunteerism with professionalism." 

He added: "The church was never meant to be a "professional organization". We'll let the world have all of those. The church is not a slick, efficient corporation with a cross stuck on its roof. It is a ministry. We do not look to the government for support or to the state for direction. We don't seek the counsel of Wall Street for financial suggestions. We have one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not rely on any earthly organization or some rich individuals to sustain the ministry. The church is a spiritual entity, built up and supported by its Founder, Jesus, who promised to build His church.""

It is therefore not easy to run, lead or shoulder the responsibilities of a rapidly growing church whether as a leader dealing with the members' seemingly endless demands and expectations, as a church staff hoping that things would be different in the household of God as compared to the secular world, or as a layperson witnessing the transformation of your church into an efficient, professional and multimillion-dollar organization.

Is it then true that when idealism and pragmatism clash, people in general  gravitate towards the middle road of tactical inauthenticity?

Notwithstanding the above, my post this morning is not to talk about the spiritual complacency or administrative woes of a professional church, god knows I've already said my peace in my previous posts here.

But my post this morning is to sincerely empathize with and support those who are faithful to the call in the ministry, and are earnestly travailing for a breakthrough for growth not so much in numbers, but hearts. 

And taking Jesus' example here would be a good start. Before He left, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, take care of them. He repeated it three times with this initial probing question: Peter, do you love me? 

Undeniably there are leaders/members in churches who love their Savour. They faithfully offer their time, effort and life to the ministry in silent service and without fanfare. 

But let me just say that loving Him is the easy part. It comes almost naturally for a believer. 

Yet, during His time, I believe Jesus was very much hated by many. He was considered a rabble-rouser, a troublemaker, a rebel for the lost. The government deemed him a political threat, the teachers of the law deemed him as religiously defiant, and the local authority deemed him a stubborn non-conformist. Almost everybody in power, statute and wealth found him a threat. 

How did Jesus then operate in a hostile world he lived in? How did He make a lasting difference despite the hate, the rage and the disappointments? 

Well, He did it all in love. He kept the big picture in His heart - his Father's business. He knew nothing was going to shake the foundation of love, hope and faith upon which He stood on. 

That is why I believe He kept asking Peter to do the same. If Peter loves Him, feed His sheep, take care of them, guide them in the ways of overcoming, and connect with them in a way that is life-changing. 

More relevantly, He first set the example, and then became the transforming influence. 

So, loving Jesus is never about embracing an ideal, feeling warmth and fuzzy inside, and then walking away with an ember glow in our faces. 

It is on the contrary hard work. It is about paying the price, counting the cost. It is about bearing the Cross and sharing the bleeding heart of our Savior. It is essentially a labor of love and sweat. 

Alas, Dietrich Bonheoffer’s words ring so true and deep here: "Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial."

For pastors, under-shepherds and church leaders, the simple call to love is an enduring call to make that connection with the sheep regardless of how trying, challenging or tiring they can be.

Jesus did just that, even as he bore the Cross on the road to grief. It was a sacrifice that not only moved the elements of nature, but it moved the hearts of the most impenitent, even till today. 

Let me end with the words of Henri Nouwen who said:- 

"When we say, "I love Jesus, but I hate the Church," we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness."

Indeed, the Church seldom asks for forgiveness. It invites and facilitates the act of repentance. It creates an altar space for kneeling, confessing and renouncing. But they are seldom self-administering. And unless the sins of the core leadership are made public, be it pride, greed, envy or the lust for power, the Church carries on business as usual.

My concern is that her servitude to orthodoxy and to the ideal of piety often blindsides the leadership to her own fragile humanity. What sadly makes it even tougher is that the groupishness she develops over time in the critical mass attained often turns into an echo chamber of approval/support that effectively shields the core leadership from self-examination and correction.   

Be that as it may, Jesus' triple reminders to Peter ultimately prevail - Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep and feed my sheep. Individually and collectively, whether leaders, church staff or layperson, we are reminded always that Christ died for the Church so that we as the Church may live for Him by loving the Church in return, warts and all. 

And the challenge may be especially great, but greater is He in us than he in the world. Cheerz. 

* image from heaven await.wordpress.


  1. *Saviour

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts; they are always very real and close to what I live for.

    Amongst the reasons you had already addressed, I suggest also that as churches become bigger, management problems arise. How do you manage so many people together? How do you keep all of them happy?

    Begs the question if church(es) are supposed to be so huge, or get huge. As churches in some countries like Singapore become bigger, Christians are no longer going out of their countries in numbers, for it is really comfortable to remain where one is, and look for where one can be served best.

    In my bible discussion group today, we were talking about how Christians in the country we are serving today, are lagging behind in making sustained and sustainable influence, for lack of workers on the field, for the longer term. I stumbled upon your post today as I was looking for what I read here about Ho Yeow Sun with them, hence I wrote. God bless.

    1. Thanks Josh for your comment and dropping by. Take care. Cheerz.