Restoring Health to an Unhealthy Church: Why Attempt It?

Many pastors and church leaders think that any effort to lead a church back to more radically biblical health is a fool’s errand and should only be attempted by…well, by fools. Sometimes this sentiment is fueled by pastoral and ecclesiological naivete. There is no perfect church and even the healthiest must constantly pursue greater spiritual health. It is, as the reformers said, “the church reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”

For others, antipathy toward working for radical reformation in a local church arises from painful experiences. More than a few good men have seen their efforts lead a church to more spiritually healthy pathways blow up in their faces. The stories from some of those situations seem more fitting for a Stephen King novel than for ecclesiastical history.

Physical attacks, financial threats, lawsuits, newspaper articles, denominational intimidators, emotional and verbal abuse are only some of the methods that have been marshaled against efforts to lead a church to spiritual health. At this point I suppose it is necessary to give the obligatory notice that pastors and other church leaders have also inflicted some serious harm on churches by unwise and un-Christlike attitudes and actions in the name of reformation. That has happened. It does happen and it is shameful and indefensible.

Nevertheless, what I have witnessed leads me to conclude that the great majority of the difficulties that come from efforts to pursue biblical renewal churches arise primarily from the entrenched carnality that permeates the ethos of many congregations today. If, as has been repeatedly argued here, the majority of our churches are filled with unregenerate members, then it only stands to reason that when biblical and spiritual course corrections are proposed in a church that a sizeable number of the members will not like it. If carnal, Christless appetites and inclinations have been made to feel at home in a church by giving them a religious veneer, then when that veneer is removed by the true Gospel the godlessness underneath gets exposed. Often that exposure resembles the reaction of smoldering embers to an influx of oxygen. The results can be pyrotechnic.

Given all of this, why in the world should a pastor attempt to lead his church toward renewed spiritual health? Why not just shake the dust from your feet of established churches and give yourself exclusively to planting new churches? Or why not limit your sense of calling to serve churches that already display encouraging signs of real spiritual life and health? Why attempt the work of biblical re-formation in a local church?

I have addressed this in broader terms a few years ago in an article entitled, “Why Work for Reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention?” Much of what I wrote there pertains to the more narrowly focused question of this post. Beyond a doubt, the greatest reason is found in the attitude, teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ deserves to have the churches that bear His Name to walk worthy of His honor. His agenda for the local church ought to be carried out at any and all costs. Where that agenda has been forsaken, for whatever reason, those who love Christ should seek to have it restored.

In our day of quick fixes and instant gratification it can be a challenge to develop and maintain a long-term perspective on church life. Patience may still be a virtue but it tends to be a bothersome one that we would just as soon not have to cultivate in our efforts to do what we judge to be important. In this regard the late James Boice was correct when he noted that we tend to overestimate what God will do in 1 year and underestimate what He will do in twenty.

But that is not the perspective of our Lord. Jesus demonstrates incredible patience with His people, both individually and corporately. After all, He did not kill me before I completed this post (or you before you read down to this line) though there is enough sin remaining in me to justify such swift judgment. He is similarly patient with His churches.

We tend to give up on churches too quickly and write them off as beyond recovery. Some, undoubtedly, are. But probably not as many as we would like to think. Serious problems in a church are no reason to abandon it. Think about this for a moment.

Would you be willing to pastor a church that nauseates Jesus? Would you even be willing to remain a member of such a church? What about one that is self-deceived? Or what if it is spiritually lukewarm, or has a prominent member who is a known adulterer and promotes fornication and adultery? Would you consider a call to a congregation that is blatantly hypocritical, or is spiritually dead? Most of us would probably cringe at the thought of trying to minister in churches like these.

Yet, these are the very kinds of churches that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3. Some of them were simply wicked. Our Lord speaks plainly about the sinfulness of five of them. The charges He brings against them are incredible. Yet, He comes to them to warn them and call them to repent. He has not yet given up on them, though He does indeed threaten to remove the lamp stand from among them (2:5) unless they repent. Nevertheless, before He takes the step of unchurching them He calls them to biblical renewal. By His letters He works for the recovery of their spiritual health.

If our Lord is willing to take this kind of attitude toward spirituall sick churches, then so should His servants. In any church that has not completely died, there remain some of Christ’s sheep mixed in with the goats and the wolves. They need a shepherd–one who will lead them back to the paths of the Chief Shepherd.

In order to “strengthen the things that remain” one must be willing to engage the work of biblical reformation in local churches. Is this kind of work hard? Of course it is. Is it for everyone? Not necessarily. But it will be for some, whom the Lord equips and providentially guides to enter into churches that are in severe need of a biblical course correction. Such men should be willing to attempt it.