“I don’t know how you put up with it!”
This was the statement of a 20-something church planter in the upstate of South Carolina upon hearing about the many challenges pastors face in established churches.
“I don’t know how you feed your family,” I responded. He had a stay-at-home wife, four kids, a dilapidated truck, and a $50,000 annual church budget.
Though church plants have their own unique challenges, my new friend was right to be concerned about the established church. Indeed, more than a few church plants begin out of frustration with the established church’s inability to face its challenges head on.
I was born and raised in the south. My Papaw took me to an established Southern Baptist church every Sunday till he died, and then my parents took over. It was in that church God called me to Himself at the age of 10, and later into ministry at the age of 18. It’s there I’ve served for nearly 20 years.
Looking towards the future, I see many challenges facing the established church in the south, but here are two that stand out.
First, we will battle the temptation to blur the line between the virtues of our faith and faith itself. In Revelation 2:1-7, Jesus commended the Ephesian church for battling hard against the moral decline of their surroundings and defending against doctrinal impurity. Many established southern churches do this well. We are heartbroken and angry at the loss of virtue we see taking place in our country. We see the Bible’s ethic as foundational to a healthy society, and we are not about to simply let it slip away without a fight. This is an admirable thing, but one of the great threats to some churches is that they preach the virtues of the faith instead of the faith itself.
We exhort our people to be kind, but we neglect to tell them how kind God was toward them in Christ. We urge them to be generous, but we do so in a way void of the generosity God showed us in Christ. We tell them to be like Jesus, but we infrequently tell them exactly who Jesus is and what He’s done. In short, we preach the virtues of the gospel, but not the gospel. The established church must remember to preach the gospel before exhorting the people to live according to it. We must not blur the line between the virtues of our faith and faith itself.
Second, we will battle the temptation to blur the line between our accomplishments and Jesus’ accomplishment. Established churches are established for a reason. They have gone and made disciples. They have shared the gospel, baptized believers, and taught them all that Jesus commanded. But some established churches can become bastions of arrogance. They can relish in their accomplishments more than Jesus’ accomplishment. In their quest to love others and help people walk with Jesus, they can fall in love with their efforts and become both prideful and legalistic. Should an established congregation boast as much about its ministries than the ministry of Jesus, the church has blurred the line between the works it does for God and the work God has done for them. Should her members judge others more than love them, they have blurred the line between self-righteousness and the righteousness of God in Christ.
Like Paul, the established church must resolve to know nothing among others except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. They must minister out of a place of humility and weakness. Their ministry and teaching should be a testimony to the work of the Spirit, not the cleverness of man. In short, they must proclaim Jesus’ great accomplishment more than their own.
Certainly there are many more challenges facing the established church in the south, but if we confuse virtue for the gospel—or our ability to live those virtues for the gospel—none of the other challenges matter.
Feel free to comment. What challenges do you believe exist for the established church in the south?