We know that Churches of Christ are in sharp decline in North America.1 We also know that God, the source of renewal, is present in his Holy Spirit. Pursuing renewal for our churches leads us to discern answers to theological and ministry questions for church renewal from Scripture.
I praise God because I have witnessed churches being renewed over the past few years.2 But also feel sorrow—even anguish—because many more churches are struggling and wilting, and many are likely to die.
I believe that the questions we ask and the priority we give them decides the direction and ultimately the future of the church. So, I am suggesting ten priority questions for leaders to ask prayerfully and courageously if they hunger for the renewal of their churches.
Church leaders frequently make decisions to keep peace among members or to navigate competing doctrinal or practical agendas rather than to seek God’s will through prayer and discernment. These questions are not developed from surveying what people want but from discerning what God desires based on what God is calling his people to be and do through Scripture.
May God raise up leaders who seek his will!
Question 1: What is God’s divine purpose for the church?
I would like for you to imagine what God might do if you made these passages a part of your life and aligned ministry according to them.
In Matt 22:34–40, when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” by one who considered himself an expert, he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”3
The purpose of the church is the love of God and love of neighbor.
Praying to God in John 17:14–16 toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus describes his disciples in this world: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”
The church distinctively lives in the world but is not of the world.
In Matt 28:18–20, the resurrected Lord said to those worshipping him (and to some who doubted), “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. I will be with you always to the very end of the age.”
The church by divine authority is to go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them, knowing that they are led forward by his divine presence.
Question 2: How do leaders equip God’s people for works of ministry?
Ephesians 4:11–16 illustrates how God’s people become leaders who “equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” and “become mature,” no longer “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love,” they grow up into him “who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
The major task of church leaders is intentionally to “prepare (equip) God’s people for works of service.”
As we will see, this equipping is better caught than taught.
Questions 3: How are leaders chosen?
Jesus called a few disciples who had walked with him on the journey to become leaders. At the beginning, Jesus invited a chosen few to come into his life, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19) and “Come and see” (John 1:39, 46). They learned by walking with him. Out of these maturing disciples, he then selected apostles, “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). Searchers became disciples who matured to be his apostles. The journey was personal, heart-to-heart, over a period of years. They heard Jesus teach and minister and then were sent out to imitate what he had been doing.
The Jesus process was searchers-disciples-leaders! Jesus walked with many searchers, some of whom became disciples, with some of those emerging into leaders. Leaders were called and chosen within the context of ministry.
Question 4: What was Jesus’ rhythm of ministry?
In Luke 6, Jesus first sought solitude when he “went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the night praying to God” (v. 12). Second, Christ’s communion with God led him to choose his twelve apostles, thus creating community (v. 13–15). Third, Jesus went down from the mountainside with his disciples and began to minister with divine power (vv. 17–19) by preaching the Sermon on the Plain with his new disciples (vv. 20–49, cf. Matt 5–7). The Jesus rhythm was solitude-community-ministry.
The church must likewise learn this rhythm of solitude-community-ministry, living UP—IN—OUT (UP in relationship with God; IN community; OUT on mission).4 These “three disciplines are important for us to remain faithful, so we not only become disciples, but also remain disciples.”5
Questions 5: How do Christians who live in the world but are not of the world make decisions?
An answer can be discerned from how decisions were made at the first church council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, reflecting on whether converted Gentiles follow Jewish customs. In this conference, three speeches were recorded, each focusing on the question with a different emphasis. There is, however, a common theme about decision-making embedded in each. Peter speaking from “history” declared that God had made a choice to accept the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas argued from “ministry” that God had performed miraculous signs and wonders among the Gentiles confirming his acceptance of them. James spoke from “Scripture” that “David’s fallen shelter” would be restored and that both the remnant and “the nations that bear [God’s] name” would be welcomed (Amos 9:11–12). Each speech focused on what God has been doing. It was therefore necessary for all the Christian leaders to accept James’s conclusion that “It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
Church leaders gathered to discern the will of God, not the desires of Jewish Christians or customs of the Jewish law.
Too frequently, elder and staff meetings have been more concerned about discussing popular methodological approaches to ministry and negotiating the competing desires of members than listening to God. How do leaders come to realize that listening to God in prayer leads the church to make transformative decisions in line with the will of God? Such upside-down thinking spiritually and radically transforms decision-making.
Question 6: What are the functions of elders?
Church leaders are called “elders” because of their maturity and “shepherds” because of their tasks. Their profile is that of mature, godly leaders (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). The functions of such spiritual leaders are to discern the cultural customs and currents that stand in opposition to the Way of Jesus and to oppose leaders who (as in the example of Acts 15) teach that one has to be circumcised in order to be saved or who (as in the example of Titus 1:5) seek some type of financial remuneration—to protect the church from imposters whose “minds and consciences are corrupt” (Titus 1:10–14).
Their task is not primarily to make the plans or set the agendas of the church but to pray for and care for the flock and discern with them God’s leading.
Question 7: How do children grow to spiritual maturity?
We know that we walk with our children in the midst of both their struggles and our own. All families live in various kinds of dysfunction. Despite our failures, we live with assurance that God in his Holy Spirit works in the midst of these human struggles.
The principle “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6) gives us assurance!
This training is lived out in the family rhythms of (1) turning to God in prayer; (2) reading the Bible to discern the will of God; (3) living in community with other Christians; (4) sharing the narrative of God and the Gospel within the nuclear and extended family and with those who do not yet know the way of God in Jesus Christ, and (5) hearing God’s call for sharing the Gospel on mission within the local neighborhood, city, country, and other parts of the world.
These counter-cultural rhythms help us live distinctive lives as followers of Jesus in an increasingly secular, time-fragmented culture. Healthy churches integrate their children into every aspect of the life of the church.
Question 8: Why do churches disintegrate?
Paradoxically, churches often disintegrate from the inside out while appearing on the surface to be healthy.
In contemporary North America, faith disintegration frequently begins when husbands begin to live busy, secular lives disconnected from faith and eventually affecting family.6 They frequently go through the motions of “going to church” because they have not been formed spiritually as disciples. Their wives struggle largely by themselves to develop the spiritual formation for their children. Parents often focus on children’s activities and neglect their own personal spiritual formation. As a result, the church becomes a “place to go” rather than a “family of fellowship.”
Churches also disintegrate because elders and members focus on the forms and functions of church rather than on God’s eternal purposes. Purpose and passion are lost when vision is too small, too this-worldly. What if the church lived with the understanding that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the fulcrum of human history and sought to live lives shaped by the cross of Christ? What if Christians brought their sufferings to the cross as well as their sins? What if Christians took their scars to the cross so that they became testimonies to transform?
Christians too frequently forget the centrality of the gospel and live “functionally,” going through the motions. They invert Phil 2:4 by looking primarily at their own interests rather than the interests of others. They forget the purpose of their baptism! They lose their ability to articulate their faith. The church becomes secondary to other parts of life.
Question 9: What is renewal?
- Renewal takes place when families seek first the kingdom of God.
- Renewal takes place when families develop a rhythm of prayer and devotion.
- Renewal takes place when churches incarnate God’s presence within their community of fellowship.
- Renewal takes place when God’s presence is evident while the church meets both publicly and from house to house as an inviting community.
- Renewal takes place when the church lovingly shares its own faith with searchers and skeptics, inviting them into loving community.
Question 10: Why should we expect opposition? How do we live faithfully during persecution?
We live in a world where, whether aware or not, Satan seeks to lead us astray from our devotion to Christ (2 Cor 11:3). While called to put on the “full armor of God” to withstand the temptations of Satan (Eph. 6:10-17), we are tempted by the lusts of the flesh and enticements of contemporary culture. We are, however, frequently oblivious to the source of our temptations and unprepared for such spiritual struggle!
In the midst of these temptations God calls us into a Trinitarian relationship with himself–a loving interaction with the intertwining fullness of his being: God, our Creator; Christ, our Savior; and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer and Empower! Thus, a primary question is “Are we living within this Trinitarian relationship or largely on the boundaries of this triangle—trying to follow God while following much of the world!”
Faithful presence is this Trinitarian way of walking in with the fullness of God, basking in his love and holiness, covered by the blood of Jesus, and living by the power of his Holy Spirit. Faithful presence is like marriage in which the husband and wife faithfully care for each other (Eph. 5:25) or a family in which parents lovingly care and nurture their children who then faithfully care for their parents at a later stage of life. Faithful presence is incarnational: God comes to us in multiple forms and dwells among us. We, in turn, grow to dwell with him. May we, as the church, live within God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit rather than in the world!
Live faithfully! Redeem the time! May you live with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14).
Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen served as a church-planting missionary to East Africa for fourteen years, taught Missions and Evangelism at Abilene Christian University for seventeen and a half years, and is the founder of and facilitator of church planting with Mission Alive (http://missionalive.org). His books Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Perspectives, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, and The Changing Face of World Missions (authored with Michael Pocock and Doug McConnell) are widely used by both students and practitioners of missions. He edited Contextualization and Syncretism, a compilation of presentations of the Evangelical Missiological Society.
†Adapted from a paper presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 6–8, 2018.
1 See Carl H. Royster, “Churches of Christ in the United States: Statistical Summary by State / Territory,” June 2018, https://www.21stcc.com/pdfs/ccusa_stats_sheet.pdf. 21st-Century Christian’s latest online numbers show 11,966 congregations (a 10 percent decline since 2000) and 1,445,856 adherents (down 12 percent).
2 Note the Mission Alive process for the spiritual renewal of older churches at http://www.missionalive.org/ma/index.php/churchrenewal#.WwlmidOG_4g.
3 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
4 For further discussion of this model, see Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Is Missional a Fad?,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer-Fall 2016): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-7/authors/md-7-van-rheenen.
5 Henri Nouwen, “From Solitude to Community to Ministry,” Leadership (Spring 1995): 81, https://christianitytoday.com/pastors/1995/spring/5l280.html.
6 This claim is based on my experience and developed in conversation with Don McLaughlin, senior minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ in Dunwoody, GA.