In the field of medicine, there are two very broad umbrella categories under which everything is categorized: Diagnostic Health Care and Preventive Health Care. Diagnostic care is what you receive when you have symptoms or risk factors and your doctor seeks to diagnose them—when they identify the root cause and prescribe a solution. Preventive care is given to you when you're symptom free and believe you are healthy—the basic care that you get when you have no reason to believe you are sick.
In last week’s article entitled “How’s Your Spiritual Health?” I pointed out that the average church in America is not healthy. I also pointed out that our actions and attitudes, even after a year filled with unprecedented challenges, still suggest that we think we are okay. We are only seeking preventive care for our spiritual health needs. What I hear from most pastors is something like this: “Yes, things are difficult, but it is because we are living in a very unhealthy culture—one filled with physical health care problems, political strife, economic disparity, and racial tensions. And yes there are unhealthy churches, but not ours.”
One of the reasons for our attitude is that the spiritual health decline we’ve experienced has been very slow. In fact, it has been so gradual and taken place over such a long period of time that we are almost completely unaware of it. Although I could provide all kinds of statistics as proof of the decline, even in the face of those statistics, many would remain unconvinced that “our church” is unhealthy.
I am living proof of how oblivious we can be to gradual health declines. Last year at some insistence from those who “say” they love me, I took a hearing test. This wasn’t just the “Can you hear the beep?” kind of test. They made me repeat words they were saying. I wasn’t totally convinced I had a problem. The test indicated that I wasn’t hearing exactly what they were saying, BUT I’m sure I was hearing what they “should have been saying!” Setting aside all my rationalizations, I had to admit that I needed hearing aids. They were ordered, and when they arrived they were synced to my telephone, and I left the doctor’s office. I did notice some immediate changes. And as I headed down the road, I heard some “new” sounds emanating from my car. My first thought was, “Wow! I’ve got to get that fixed.” One noise that startled me was a clicking sound I heard every time I turned a corner. What I was hearing for the first time in a long-time was the sound of my turn signal. The next morning I had a similar experience as I sat down at my desk and began to reply to my e-mails. I thought I had a nice quiet keyboard. It turns out that I actually have a very loud keystroke.
Today we have nice soundproof rooms with electronic testing tools to determine if we have hearing loss and then pinpoint the specific frequencies where that loss is occurring. What would happen if we had technology capable of diagnosing the root cause of our spiritual health problems? Would the average church even use them? Over twenty years ago, I was trained and certified to use one of the simplest and best church health diagnostic tools available. I promoted it and encouraged pastors to take advantage of it, but over the years only a handful have used it.
So in lieu of recommending any existing diagnostic tools, let me suggest some self-evaluation questions you can ask to determine the health of your church. Last week I stated that the number one problem we have in the American church is the lack of mature leaders. So, one way to know if you are a healthy church is by asking yourself, “Do we have enough spiritually mature leaders to do all that God is asking us to do in our church? If the answer is yes, then you are a spiritually healthy church.
If you answered no, then your church has some spiritual health issues. Let me suggest some diagnostic follow-up questions:
If your only answer to my last diagnostic question above was, “We have been praying that the Lord of the Harvest would send us laborers for our harvest field,” then I hope you can hear me saying with love and as much grace as I can express in written words, “You have ceased to be a church, and you have become part of the mission field.” The first step in making a change is acknowledging your need for change! Stay tuned as I continue to discuss spiritual health issues.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Over the past ten months the word COVID, which many of us had never heard before, has become a word we use at least once a day. The average American has been exposed to more information and disinformation regarding a single strain of the COVID family of viruses (COVID19), than they can handle. One virus has created a global concern for our physical wellbeing.
What has intrigued me during this season is that it hasn’t generated an equal concern for our spiritual health. Most pastors and churches are working hard to find ways to survive until they can get back to normal. The goal seems to be to get back to where we were a year ago. But stop and ask yourself, where was the American church in January 2020? Was the average church a healthy church? The reality is that in every statistical area we use to evaluate a normal American church, the average church was not healthy a year ago. From my perspective, THE number one symptom that tells me we have a significant spiritual health crisis in our nation is our lack of mature leaders. Let me elaborate a bit on how I arrived at this conclusion.
Phyllis and I began the New Year by beginning the study of Experiencing God during our morning devotionals. Phyllis had never done the study, and I have found it to be very useful at times in my life when I needed clarity from God. In our chaotic world filled with COVID, racial tensions, political polarization, economic stress, and Christianity’s declining influence, I figured it might be a good time to seek clarity from God. The first principle you study in Experiencing God is that God is always at work around us. The question is, “Am I even expecting God to be at work?”
So I started to pay closer attention. I have been doing a major edit on material I have used for decades to help pastor search committees. In preparation for the edit, I read the book Next: Pastoral Succession that Works by Vanderbloemen and Bird. Although they specifically state, “We are not primarily writing on how to establish a pastor search committee;” it has been a helpful resource.
At the same time, I have been working with several pastor search committees. In the process of helping one, I ran across an “interesting” resume. The candidate had sent a self-composed, in depth cover letter that basically described himself as a superman kind of pastor. It emphasized all that he could do and all the knowledge that he had that would transform their church. It was very “me-centered.” His perspective comes from a faulty definition of spiritual maturity. Disciple-making is not simply the transfer of information but is about life transformation (Romans 12:1-2).
All of this, and a variety of similar things, began to create a swirling vortex in my mind. Ultimately, God used these experiences to create an “Aha moment!” If we, Christians and churches—the body of Christ—really addressed the core issue of our spiritual health problem, I wouldn’t need to help so many pastor search committees and Vanderbloemen and Bird’s book wouldn’t have been so popular. The average American church is not raising up leaders from their own harvest field. This is what Jesus commanded us to do in the Great Commission—to make disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. It is what He had told His disciples to do when He sent the twelve out two-by-two in Matthew 9:38. It is what Jesus told the seventy to do when He sent them out two by two in Luke 10:2. But since the average church in America is emphasizing doing and knowing rather than growing in obedience and Christlikeness, when they need a new pastor they have to find one that some other church has been preparing. And because so few churches are raising up leaders for the harvest, it has become more imperative that I have good resources to share with search committees and Vanderbloemen and Bird’s book will continue to sell well.
When it comes to our spiritual health we are usually treating symptoms and ignoring or glossing over the underlying cause of our spiritual health crisis—our failure to make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples (II Timothy 2:2). My prayer is that your personal walk is significantly better than it was a year ago. But, to be all that God wants us to be, we all need to regularly ask God to put a spotlight of truth on areas where we need to grow (Psalm 139:23-24) and be willing to listen to genuine friends—those will to speak truth into our life (Proverbs 27:6). As we do that, we will be able to diagnose some underlying issues that are negatively impacting our spiritual health. Go and become all that God desires for you.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
There is no one who is able to set themself outside of our current historical events and view them with absolute objectivity. As we are watching these unprecedented events unfold, we do so with personal perspectives shaped by our life experiences. Having said that, ALL OF US should be able to say that violence and attacks on persons and property are never a proper response. I would suggest that if we can’t denounce violence, anarchy, and murder without adding a single qualifier—anything that in anyway, shape, or form provides a rationalization for them--then we have already lost objectivity and will lose credibility.
As a nation, we are experiencing an increased polarization and calcification that has destroyed any remaining lines of communication that existed between factions. We have also experienced a series of events that have increasingly desensitized us. It has become so common that we dismiss it as normal. We lose our sense of outrage and righteous indignation. Some of us simply “tune out.” The net result is demoralized and defeated people watching as warring factions escalate their response to one another.
But humanity has been down this road before. Genesis 6:5-7 speaks to a time much like ours is rapidly becoming.
“Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them."'
If you were to stop at verse seven and not know the rest of the story, you would become despondent. However, verse eight says, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” God provided light and hope through the obedience of a single man.
After Joshua led the nation of Israel into the Promised Land, and he and his generation passed away, a four hundred year period of time passed that Biblical scholars call the Period of the Judges. For four centuries the “People of God” experienced a cyclical life that moved from obedience and blessing to disobedience and social decay. Judges 2:17-19 describes it this way:
“They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do so. And when the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way.”
God provided light and hope through the faithful obedience of various men, and at least one woman named Deborah.
The prophet Isaiah lived in a time of national despair. Assyria had conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and almost did the same thing to the southern kingdom of Judah. The first seventeen verses of the book of Isaiah picture Judah as a nation that had turned its back on God. After sowing seeds of sinful rebellion they were now reaping the harvest of cultural decay and national decline. But God gave Isaiah a word of hope to share with the nation:
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’” Says the Lord, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured by the sword’; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 1:18-20
God offered the nation hope in the midst of darkness by declaring, “If you are willing and obedient you will eat the good of the land.”
These are but a few of the many examples we have in scripture. In the darkest of times, God has always set before us the possibility of a future full of hope and blessings. However, it is always a conditional promise that requires repentance, faith, and obedience on our part.
It is interesting to note that in times of cultural distress we most often quote a promise from God that was not one given during a season of difficulty, but at the pinnacle of Israel’s global prominence—the dedication of the first temple during Solomon’s reign. It was God’s response to Solomon’s dedication prayer that is recorded in II Chronicles 6. In his prayer, over and over again he beseeched God to listen when people cried out to Him in times of trouble—troubles that will often be caused by their own sinful actions. You will note that Solomon did not pray “If trouble comes” but “When it comes.” God’s answer was:
“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” II Chronicles 7:14
Because we have personal perspectives shaped by our life experiences, we will respond differently to current events. Those various responses will be packed with emotions and driven by our basic human instincts for survival. As I struggle and seek to rise above emotions and human instinct by listening to the indwelling Holy Spirit, let me encourage you to do the same. Let us come together with ears to hear one another’s pain AND to raise our prayers of confession and intercession to God. In the days ahead, Heartland Church Network will be scheduling specific times for pastors to come together, to share with one another, to pray for one another, and to lift our unified voices to God in prayer.
Pastor Tim Johnson of New Covenant Community Church sent me the following link to an article entitled "Help! I’m Pastoring in the Wilderness.” Let me throw out a couple of quotes from Pastor Cole Huffman’s blog that I pray will encourage you to read the whole thing. I was challenged and encouraged by it and pray that you will be as well.
“On a recent Saturday night, I told my wife I was going to resign in the morning. After 18 years in the church. Just like that. I’ve taken enough shots! She cut my bowstrings and walked me back from the ledge. I’m a pastor, which means I have to navigate this wilderness the church isn’t just “in” but “is.”
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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