below the surface


I was talking to a church late last year who was looking for a teaching pastor. It was a church that was recommended from a couple of people that I know. This congrregation was known for it’s give-the-shirt-off-your-back believers. They had another staff member and their lead pastor had resigned. Their children’s curriculum was on track. The teens were being taught well. Their former lead pastor had matured under his own study and this came out in his preaching…and some had come along with him. He became an expositor who taught through the Bible verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book. This church was a long ways away and I was considering the future…and I decided to wait.

So back in early spring I contacted this church again and I talked to one of the guys from the search committee and things had gone really south, really quick. Long story short, the church had blown up. The old solid curriculum was being ditched for Bible lite and they wanted something different from what their former pastor was serving up piping hot straight from the Word every Sunday morning. I listened as my elder brother shared his deep grief over his church family that was seriously in the ditch. I prayed with him and told him I would continue to pray from time to time.

My heart breaks over churches that spiral out of control. Churches that seem to be doing fine and then something snaps. Something major hits and it becomes like a gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

I have some words scratched out on a piece of paper that I jotted down while watching a TV show and it sits on my desk. The backdrop to the show is that there’s a city that seemed to be doing fine but then all H-E-double hockey stick breaks out. (That’s the way one of our daughters puts it.) And the words exchanged were as follows:

‘What’s wrong with this city?’

‘It was always below the surface, all it needed was a spark.’

That’s a great line. ‘It was always below the surface, all it needed was a spark.’

I regularly surf church webpages. Most have generic statement of faith that aren’t much different from every other church. I try to find out the books that the pastors are reading and Bible books that they’re preaching through. There’s lots that we can find out on church web pages by what they say and what they don’t say but I’d suggest that most of these churches have a pretty positive self-perception.  They see themselves as happy, healthy places. But is there something below the surface waiting for a spark to set it off?

Something major can be the spark that leads to an all out forest fire…a division…a split… an exodus. And some may ask the question as they watch on: ‘what’s wrong with this church?’ The answer is likely, ‘it was always below the surface, all it needed was a spark.’

If we keep the gospel at the centre of our churches, blowups are less likely to happen. In fact, I would be so bold to say that if we see the church rightly, in light of Scripture, it won’t happen…if we keep relying on God’s grace.

[14] For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [15] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, [16] and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16 ESV)

The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus blew up a barrier between two people groups, the Jews and the Gentiles, to make one people out of two. So if you are a part of a local gospel believing body, you are part of the new called out community. In light of the cross work of Jesus you are at one with your brothers and sisters in Christ, positionally speaking. But practically speaking, by God’s abundant grace, you are to grow up in your position. By God’s grace you are to be at one with other believers more and more. If that’s the case why are so many churches jacked up with division?

Three answers that come to mind.

1. Just because a person says ‘I’m saved’ or his friends say ‘he’s saved’ or her family says ‘she’s saved’, doesn’t make a person saved. Jesus will say to some ‘I never knew you’ (Matthew 7:23) even though they thought they knew Him. Unbelievers can get their stink all over the other believers at church. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. (1 Corinthians 5:6) An unbeliever or a group of unbelievers can gain wrong influence and the ship will be steered nowhere good.

2. Saved people need to know about positional unity. They need to know that all the different things about the people in your church (age, gender, finances, intelligence, skin colour, church history, and on and on) mean squat in light of the cross. Those things that divide people who don’t know Christ, don’t matter before the cross of Christ. The cross brings people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation together (Revelation 5:9).

3. Saved people need to be encouraged to live out their positional unity, practically. One of the ways to do that is to hang with people who aren’t like you. Invite a couple over who is twice your age. If you’re a doctor spend time talking to a factory worker. If you’re from x church background go for coffee with someone from y church background. The common denominator will always be Jesus and you’ll have lots to talk about.

‘It was always below the surface, all it needed was a spark.’

If you’re part of a church family who’s seeking as a congregation to understand the gospel and seeking to understand the implications of the gospel, it’s highly unlikely that your church will blow up. In fact, your church just might blossom.




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