Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches, #1

Centered on Christ and Bounded by Scripture

July 13, 1997

There is an old legend that says when Jesus arrived in heaven after his search-and-rescue mission among humankind, all the heavenly host was assembled to greet him. There were choruses of praise the like of which had never been sung in heaven. He was praised as the one who had brought redemptionís plan to fulfillment. He was proclaimed worthy to receive honor and glory and praise. Torrents of love swept over him as Michael and Gabriel led the angelic welcome.

Then the angels stepped back to witness the reception given the risen and exalted Christ by God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. There has never been nor will there ever be again such a reunion. The empty place in heaven had been filled. The Word was with God and was God. Everything was returned to its maximal degree of perfection.

With the welcome complete and the exalted Christ seated at the right hand of the Father, the angels asked him who he had left behind on Earth to finish the work he had begun. "Just a tiny group of men and women who love me," replied Jesus.

"Thatís all?" asked the angels. "What if that tiny group should fail?"

And Jesus said, "I have no other plan."

The Importance of the Church


Although apocryphal, this story underscores the importance of the church in Godís scheme of things. "The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christís body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence" (Eph. 1:22-23, The Message).

If the church of God is ineffective, Christ is denied glory that belongs to him. If churches focus on themselves, they become far more interested in maintaining comfort zones than in raiding enemy territory to free Satanís captives. If our churches remain divided and see one another as "the enemy," the real enemy will continue to be the Prince of This World. If the church is not effective, it cannot fill everything with the presence of Christ.

Numbers, nails, and nickels are the quantitative measurements people use to assess a church. How many members do you have? What size facility do you own? What is your annual budget? These may be appropriate criteria for success in business, but they can be terribly misleading about a church.

Churches must learn to measure qualitatively in terms of wholesome relationships, unselfish service, and faithful witness. The goals we set for ourselves must be larger than the self-serving ones related to a leaderís ego. The habits we nurture ought to define an identity that will cause outsiders to see our churches as outposts of the kingdom of heaven right here among humankind.

But what are those traits? And how can a church cultivate habitual behaviors that will develop them? What are the pitfalls to their cultivation?

Sounds Familiar: Seven Habits?


Youíre right! The title of this series of sermons is a rip-off from Steven Coveyís hugely successful The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Published in 1989, Coveyís book of practical insights into the life patterns of highly effective persons has challenged people in both their professional and personal lives to better ways of doing things.

From the time I first read Covey, it occurred to me that highly effective churches also have some common traits. Identifying them would help some churches that are struggling to focus their energies productively. Instead of simply doing the same old things on the same old schedules in the same old way, perhaps they could try a few new things and get a better result. After all, didnít somebody say the definition of insanity is doing the same things in the same ways and expecting a different outcome?

A church will be propelled either by precedent, personality, power, or purpose. Precedent-driven churches have as their operative formula: This is the way we always do things here. Personality-driven churches thrive on the dreams and creativity of a central leader who has special gifts. Assuming the purest of motives and a Christ-focused agenda, the obvious limitation in such churches is the unlikelihood that their growth and effectiveness will survive the death or move of that leader. Power-driven churches are unhealthy places where the worldly game of win-lose is played out in the name of Jesus. Some person or group within the church pushes people around, coerces conformity, and drives it according to a human agenda. Most of these churches wind up having fights that lead to church splits Ė always masked as "doctrinal divisions" in order to justify the abusive things the disputants say about and do to one another.

A purpose-driven church, on the other hand, can survive the pitfalls just identified. Because it looks forward rather than backward, the fact that "weíve never done it that way before" need not hamstring justifiable innovations. Because its vision is larger than any one personís genius, it can not only survive a death or move but continue forging ahead to the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Because it has embraced a kingdom mentality in which the willingness to wash feet supersedes anyoneís desire to be a church boss, power plays of the sort people witness in the world are altogether out of place.

Highly Effective Churches?


The trickiest word in the title of this sermon series is "effective." What is an effective church? Please donít read it to mean "large" Ė although it will almost surely be growing. And neither should you take it to mean wealthy, well-equipped, contemporary (or traditional) in worship style, urban (or rural), or any of the other things that are too glibly associated with the notion of effectiveness in the popular mind.

For the purpose of these sermons, a highly effective church should be understood in terms of two essential traits. First, it provides a healthy environment for the spiritual lives of its members. Second, it penetrates the larger community around it through relationship-building and seed-planting.

Some godly believers have been trapped in churches that are unhealthy for their own members. Effective churches are skilled at communication and conflict resolution. They encourage creativity. They know how to celebrate Christ in ways that are faithful to the Word of God without stifling the freshness of the Holy Spirit in their midst. They are safe places for dealing with woundedness and pain. Yet they are celebrative and joyous churches. Such churches are nurturing places for their members. The transformation of saved people from one level of faith to a deeper, richer one is witnessed daily.

Yet a highly effective church does not exist just for itself. It looks outward for the sake of service and witness. Its presence in a community parallels the personal presence of Jesus during his ministry. He blessed people wherever he went, brought light into darkness, and introduced people to his Father. A church that understands its role as the spiritual body of Christ in the world incarnates those same kingdom abilities. It offers hope, blessing, and opportunity to people Ė with no strings attached. It is a beacon of light to everyone who knows it because of the value it attaches to righteousness. It speaks not of itself but of Jesus for the sake of those who do not understand the reason for its positive outreach and in order to introduce them to him. Using its own credibility as part of its witness, such a church presents the gospel message of new life in Christ and calls lost people to salvation.

Centered on Jesus


The vision of the church must always be heavenward. Thus its worship must be Christ-exalting rather than creature-centered. Its members must be challenged to march to the call of a heavenly cadence and not to the beat of this-worldly drummers who would divert their attention from the ultimate reality that centers in Jesus.

Kay Arthur relates a story a friend of hers shared about a deer-hunting trip his father made into the wilds of Oregon. With his rifle cradled in the crook of his arm, the manís dad was following an old logging road that had been nearly reclaimed by the encroaching forest. It was almost evening, and he was thinking about going back to camp. Suddenly a noise exploded in the brush nearby. Before he had time to lift his rifle, a tiny blur of brown and white came darting up the road straight for him. This is how her friend tells the story . . .

"It all happened so fast, Dad hardly had time to think. He looked down and there was a little brown cottontail ó utterly spent ó crowded up against his legs between his boots. The little thing was trembling all over, but it just sat there and didnít budge.

"Now this was really strange. Wild rabbits are frightened of people, and itís not that often youíd ever actually see one ó let alone have one come and sit at your feet.

"While Dad was puzzling over this, another player entered the scene. Down the road ó maybe twenty yards away ó a weasel burst out of the brush. When it saw my Dad ó and its intended prey sitting at his feet ó the predator froze in its tracks, its mouth panting, its eyes glowing red.

"It was then that Dad understood he had stepped into a little life-and-death drama of the forest. The cottontail, exhausted by the chase, was only moments from death. Dad was its last hope of refuge. Forgetting its natural fear and caution, the little animal instinctively crowded up against him for protection from the sharp teeth of its relentless enemy."

And the deer hunter who had become a shelter didnít disappoint his helpless ward. He raised his powerful rifle and shot into the ground just in front of the weasel. The animal sprang straight up into the air and darted back into the forest. He didnít want rabbit for dinner anymore. He was more interested in saving his own skin. "Where did it go, little one?" asked the hunter to the wild rabbit still huddled at his feet. "I donít think heíll be bothering you for a while. Looks like youíre off the hook tonight."

With all our intellectual attainments, technology, and busyness, we human beings are still basically scared rabbits in the cosmic forest. The twin predators of guilt and shame pursue us. Worry, heartache, and fear take peace from our hearts. Satan is a roaring lion whose intention is to have us for dinner! It is the business of the church to point the world to the one person in all of human experience who is capable of rescuing us from moral bankruptcy, spiritual barrenness, and hell.

The world doesnít need any more spectacles of fallen shepherds and scattered sheep. It needs a clear vision of the Good Shepherd and dependable directions as to how to find him. The business of the church is not to formulate doctrines about Jesus in absentia but to be his incarnational presence in the world. Our commission is first to be Jesus in the lives of broken, hurting people and then to speak the truth about Jesus to them so they can have a personal relationship with him as their Savior.

To allow anyone other than Jesus or anything other than the gospel to become the focus of a churchís life is to elevate that person or issue to greater prominence than Christ himself and to veer off into idolatry.

Go back and reread the sermons in Acts. You will be impressed anew with the Christocentric theme of each one. Depending on whether the audience was Jewish or Gentiles, the evangelist might choose to quote Scripture or a Greek poet. While adapting the method pf presentation to the hearers, the message remained the same. "God has made this Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ" (2:36). "They never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ" (5:42). "Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus" (8:35). "Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection" (17:18).

The essence of the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17-18). And these blessings come as gifts from Christ rather than as fruits of our own spiritual achievements. The central issue of the Christian faith is still Jesus question: "Who do you say I am?" (Matt. 16:15). Unless everything focuses on and finds its meaning in the person and work of Jesus Christ, a church dooms itself to ineffectual striving after the wind.

Bounded by Scripture


Second only to an affirmation of faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ, a faithful and fruitful church declares its confidence in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. It may even be a mistake, in fact, to list these two affirmations as if they were somehow capable of being separated. All we would dare affirm about Jesus is what we can ground in Holy Scripture. It is our definitive source of information about him and the normative guide for understanding his function as head of the church.

The Christian faith rests upon the data found in the Bible, for "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). This "word of Christ" has not been entrusted to oral tradition or to occasional prophets who rise up among the churches but has been recorded permanently for all people in the sixty-six books of canonical Scripture.

Even so, the sixty-six books of the English Bible possess relative rather than equal weight. The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament point forward to Christ through prediction, type, and shadow; the twenty-seven books of the New Testament provide the fulfillment, anti-type, and substance. Because we look to Jesus as the one having all authority in spiritual matters, we listen to his words from the New Testament. The things he has spoken himself (John 12:48) and through his appointed ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) constitute the authoritative body of doctrine that must guide the life of the faith community called the church.

But how shall we understand the authority of the Bible? Some see it as a loose set of principles pointing in a general direction; others see it as a detailed series of commands and detailed instructions that cover every life situation. Which is it? Is the Bible a friendly gesture in Christís direction or a contractorís blueprint for the faith and life of believers?

When the New Testament speaks of a "form of teaching to which you were entrusted" (Rom. 6:17), it identifies something midway between the extremes of vagueness and legalism. Yes, there are specific commandments in the Word of God that must be obeyed. Jesus saves only those who are willing to obey him, according to Hebrews 5:9. Affirming the authority of Christ over his disciples is not legalism. Yet there is not a command to cover every detail of oneís life. More often there are principles to be grappled with and applied to specific life situations. A theological "liberal" is willing to ignore and set aside any requirement that doesnít agree with his own perspective on a matter; a "legalist" is willing to make every principle into a detailed list of specifics that must be followed ó or else.

The world around us is looking neither for someone to toss away the Bible nor for a group that will turn its authority into a heavy yoke no one can bear. It is waiting for churches to so embrace, affirm, and live Scripture that they cannot but see Jesus in them. They want churches both to teach and to model the life of Christ. Those churches will draw men to God. They will be highly effective. They will lead men and women to salvation in Christ.

Conclusion


I was only browsing in the airport gift shop ó definitely not buying. Most of the section where I was were patriotic in nature. Anything I would have been interested in taking home, however, was far too expensive to consider. So I just looked.

The one item I remember from the shop was first an oddity, then an amazement, and finally something of a parable. It was a shiny copper plate. It was under glass to keep fingerprints from spoiling its polished surface.

Engraved on the plate were the words of the Declaration of Independence. They are precious words indeed to all of us who live in the United States of America. To despise so important a document in our nationís history would be beneath any patriotic American. It is part of our birthright and heritage.

But something strange and delightful happened as I looked at the engraved plate. As I started to move on along the counter and therefore changed my angle of perspective on it, I began to see a face. Moving deliberately now to catch the light just right, I saw the face of George Washington looking back at me. Some creative artist had etched the details of the face of our countryís first president into the words of its most cherished document!

Noble words became the face of a person, and I would have missed the point of the artistís effort if I had not seen the face. Sublime ideals reduced to a written text dissolved into human persona. A revered text became someone I knew.

I stood and stared in amazement. I thought about the time, skill, and patience it must have taken to create such a piece. I certainly understood why it was so expensive ó and kept under protective glass. Only as I reflected on it later did I realize how perfectly it illustrates a central truth of the Christian faith. But youíre ahead of me, arenít you?

A highly effective church is so focused on Jesus that its own experience of the Word of God reveals him to everyone who sees it. If we cherish, teach, and offer the Word of God to others merely as a library of statutes and case studies, we reveal our own impoverished understanding of the Bible.

The Bible is Godís revelation of himself in the person and work of Christ. And we are reading and interpreting it correctly only when we see beyond the words and cry, "I see Jesus! I see Jesus!" And we teach it effectively only when we model it so faithfully through the life of our churches that unchurched people around us cry, "I see Jesus! I see Jesus!"



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