|Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches, #7
Lives Get Changed
August 24, 1997
The "acid test" for a churchís effectiveness is the transforming work of the Holy Spirit among its members. And what is the proof that the Spirit of God is present and active in a body of people? Lives are being changed daily!
While all Christians recall and marvel at the mighty works of Christ, some of us seem to have forgotten the power of his words. The truth he communicated to men and women contained the power of God to transform and empower their lives. The power of his words is explained this way in Scripture: "The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).
We must cling to the joyous truth that the Word of God is powerful. When we teach it with authority and expectation, it will achieve the result God has ordained.
J.I. Packer argues that the church should have greater expectations of Godís ability to transform peopleís lives.1 Fanciful, superstitious tales about saints working miracles were so rampant when the Reformation Movement began in Europe that most of its leaders reacted to the notion. That reaction may be described, Packer says, as "backing away" from it. Even when one is right in moving away from something he is convinced to be an error, it is not right to walk backward from it. Sooner or later in that posture, he will stumble over something else he doesnít see.
Maybe that is what some of us have done. In moving away from the excesses we believe we have witnessed in charismatic theology and practice, have we effectively eliminated the supernatural from the lives of Godís people? If so, we have been more wrong than right.
Are non-Christian therapists as effective in saving marriages as Christian therapists ó working in a context of a churchís faith, prayers, and ministry? Are humanistic 12-step programs as good for breaking alcohol and cocaine addiction as ones where the name of Jesus is invoked reverently and frequently? What about eating disorders? Cancer? Problems with children? Sexual addiction? Depression? Personality disorders?
I am one of a growing number of non-charismatics who nevertheless believes in supernatural answers to our prayers. Yes, God sometimes allows situations to remain unaltered so he can teach us the sufficiency of his grace in our weakness (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10). So believers are not exempt from cancer, bankruptcy, or divorce. And, yes, we should use all the natural and ordinary resources such as education and medication, therapy and discipline, Alcoholics Anonymous and surgery that can help people. But we must become bolder in prayer and spiritual ministry. Godís Holy Spirit lives among and within his people, and we must believe that his power at work in those who believe can bring about dramatic outcomes.
Let the church focus on the power of God to break bad or immoral habits. Is there some bad habit youíve developed over time? Want to stop overeating or quit smoking altogether? Or is it more serious than that? Perhaps your problem is alcoholism, a temper that leads to violence, homosexuality, or fornication-adultery. God would not call you to sobriety, self-control, or chastity if it were not possible for you to obey his commandment.
Here is a clear call from God to all believers about some things that cannot be tolerated in our personal and corporate lives as his people:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Col. 3:5-10).
In Paulís theology, the key to this marvelous transformation lies in the fact that we have been "raised with Christ" and have set our "minds on things above" (Col. 3:1-2). There is something about our connection with God and the truth that Christ has revealed to us that can bring about so wonderful a result. It is not by human means, but by the power of God. "I can do everything through [Christ] who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13). Christians look to him with the expectation that he will respond to our needs. Specifically, he will not refuse a plea for moral and spiritual power to overcome sin.
A church is highly effective for Godís purposes only if it believes that his divine power is at work among its members. But there is more. It must go beyond merely affirming and teaching the truth of Godís power to change lives. It must be willing to serve as the laboratory in which the Lord does his daily work of changing lives. Our prayer, counseling, benevolence, and teaching must assume the ability of God to work in our midst to do things we could not bring about through our own devices. We must have the same confident attitude toward Godís power at work in todayís churches that Paul had toward it in the first century: "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!" (Eph. 3:20-21).
"Humpty Dumpty Revisited"
Several years ago, Vic Pentz did one of the most creative things Iíve ever read with a childrenís nursery rhyme. It captures the essence of the message we must hear, believe, and implement in our churches. You know the rhyme, and I want you to follow Pentzí development of an idea from it.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the Kingís horses and all the Kingís men
Couldnít put Humpty together again.
But soon the King himself heard of Humptyís fate. And he was deeply disturbed. So, setting aside his royal finery, disguised as a common peasant, the King slipped unnoticed through the majestic palace gates and into the rough-and-tumble street life of his kingdom
The King meandered through the back streets and alleys in search of Humpty. After several days and nights the persistent monarch found him. Humptyís shattered body was scattered over a ten-foot circle amidst the broken glass and flattened beer cans of a back alley.
Though weak from his searching, the King was overjoyed at the sight of Humpty. He ran to his side and cried, "Humpty! It is I ó your King! I have powers greater than those of my horses and men who failed to put you together again. Be at peace. I am here to help!"
"Leave me alone," Humptyís mouth retorted. "Iíve gotten used to this new way of life. I kind of like it now."
"But ó" was all the King could get out before Humpty continued.
"I tell you, Iím fine. I like it here. That trash can over there . . . the way the sun sparkles on the broken glass. This must be the garden spot of the world!"
The King tried again. "I assure you my kingdom has much more to offer than this back alley ó there are green mountains, rolling surfs, exciting cities . . ."
"But Humpty would hear none of it. And the saddened King returned to the palace.
A week later one of Humptyís eyes rolled skyward only to see once again the concerned face of the King standing over his fractured pieces.
"Iíve come to help," firmly stated the King.
"Look, leave me alone, will you?" said Humpty. "Iíve just seen my psychiatrist, and he assures me that Iím doing a fine job of coping with my environment as it is. Youíre a cop-out. A man has to deal with life as it comes. Iím a realist."
"But wouldnít you rather walk?" asked the King.
"Look," Humptyís mouth replied, "once I get up and start walking Iíll have to stay up and keep walking. At this point in my life Iím not ready to make a commitment like that. So, if youíll excuse me ó youíre blocking my sun."
Reluctantly the King turned once again and walked through the streets of his kingdom back to the palace.
It was over a year before the King ventured to return to Humptyís side.
But, sure enough, one bright morning one of Humptyís ears perked up at the sure, steady strides of the King. This time he was ready. Humptyís eye turned toward the tall figure just as his mouth managed the words, "My King!"
Immediately the King fell to his knees on the glass-covered pavement. His strong, knowing hands gently began to piece together Humptyís fragments. After some time, his work completed, the King rose to full height, pulling up with him the figure of a strong young man.
The two walked hand in hand throughout the kingdom. Together they stood atop lush green mountains. They ran together along deserted beaches. They laughed and joked together as they strolled the gleaming cities of the Kingís domain. This went on forever. And to the depth, breadth, and height of their friendship there was no end.
Once while walking together down the sidewalk in one of the Kingís cities, Humpty overheard a remark that made his heart leap with both the joy of his new life and the bitter memory of the back alley. Someone said, "Say, who are those two men?"
Another replied, "Why the one on the left is old Humpty Dumpty. I donít know the one on the right ó but they sure look like brothers!"2
I believe the power of our God is greater than that of the failed servants of a king in a nursery rhyme. I believe he can save, change, and transform human beings. In light of the Humpty Dumpty parable, read these words from Paul:
Here it is in a nutshell: Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it. But more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into life! One man said no to God and put many people in the wrong; one man said yes to God and put many in the right.
All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers. But sin didnít, and doesnít, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When itís sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and thatís the end of it. Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life ó a life that goes on and on and on, world without end (Rom. 5:18-21, The Message).
Aggressive forgiveness! God is "putting everything together again" through the work of Christ! More than getting us out of trouble, God has got us into life! Thatís good news all right. No, its wonderful news!
Although it is God who does this work, his plan is to bring about the "putting together again" of our lives within the community of faith called a church. And the church through which he wills to bring about salvation and change is not a vague "church universal" but the concrete local churches of which you and I are members.
The Woodmont Hills Church of Christ is intended by our Heavenly Father to be a reconciling place. Not only are we reconciled to God in the church but with our fellow human beings as well. "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting menís sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
The Woodmont Hills Church of Christ is also meant by God to be a nurturing place. Because we embrace kingdom values rather worldly values, we both affirm the lifestyle of Christ (i.e., holiness) and work to equip ourselves for service (i.e., ministry). "It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare Godís people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:11-13).
The Woodmont Hills Church of Christ is also called to be a witnessing place to the world. Not every believer has been equipped with the gift of evangelism. It is a spiritual gift provided to some in Godís sovereign plan, but not to others (cf. Eph. 4:11-13). But God has put every believer in a position to bear witness to him through the church. Just because we are Christís people, we bear witness to Godís place in history; to the degree that we are a highly effective church, we become both salt and light to the world around us. Then, as individuals, we are allowed to bear witness to Godís place in our personal lives; thus we become his instruments to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus and to give them hope that the same power that has worked in first one and then another of us can also work in them.
Ernest Gordon wrote of his experiences as a prisoner of war to the Japanese during World War II. He spent three and one-half years in a prison camp. What happened there could serve as a microcosm of the sorts of things that can happen in local churches to make them into reconciling, nurturing, witnessing places in the hostile territory of this world. He wrote of how the prisoners turned to God in the early days of their imprisonment and expected him to come to their rescue immediately.
When time passed and they were not delivered, the prisoners began first to question and then to accuse God. Had he forsaken them? Were his promises to help his people empty? A selfishness emerged among the prisoners. They fought at the slightest provocation. They stole personal items from one another. They refused to care for the sick and dying or even to bury their dead.
Then a miracle of love infected the camp. It started when just a few people in the larger group started practicing agape ó the self-giving love of Christ. Some of them nursed Gordon himself back to health when he became seriously ill. One man starved to death while sharing his meager rations to keep another man alive. One prisoner took an undeserved execution rather than have his entire work crew executed after a shovel turned up missing ó a shovel that, by the way, was found later not to have been missing at all. The guards had miscounted the tools when a detail of prisoners finished its dayís work.
The agape of the few became as contagious as influenza in the camp. Prisoners began helping one another. They nursed the sick, comforted the dying, and buried the dead. The prisoners not only helped their fellow prisoners but even found opportunities to do kind acts for their enemies. Gordon wrote of the experience he lived: "Selfishness, hatred, jealousy, greed were all anti-life. Love, self-sacrifice, mercy, and creative faith . . . were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God to men."3
Some of these same discoveries about transformation within a faith community are being made by persecuted believers in Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Sudan, China, and other countries where being a Christian costs people today. Surely we donít want to have to endure such a horrible fate to learn so basic a lesson. If it is necessary, however, I can only pray for it to happen soon. And if your church is a place of selfishness, jealousy, and anti-life experience, the best way for you to change that is to begin practicing agape within that body.
Start as one person, and draw a few others together around the same ideal of being a true community of faith. Donít get together to gripe, point fingers, or plot a church coup. Get together to pray for the Spirit of God to live within your church. For some elder who is suspicious of your purposes or a preacher who indicts you as subversives, focus your hearts in prayer for him. Invite him to your study and prayer group. Look for ways to show special kindnesses to him. Be gentle, loving, and non-retaliatory in spirit. God can work wonders in just such a setting. Reconciliation, nurture, and witness can arise from just such unpromising beginnings.
A little girl whose malformed leg had undergone another in a series of corrective surgeries became discouraged with her physical therapy. She insisted she wanted to give up and accept the consequences. When her father insisted that she keep trying to walk through her pain, she fell into his arms and said, "Daddy, why canít you love me just the way I am?"
Trying to understand her situation, a father whose eyes were filled with tears hugged his little girl and said, "Honey, I do love you just the way you are. But I love you too much to let you stay that way when you can get well and walk!"
That is the way God loves each of us. He loves us fully and unreservedly just the way we are ó limitations, imperfections, history of failure.
Even though you are struggling with some sin today, he loves you just the way you are and cannot love you more than he does. He has forgiven you, accepted you, and receive you into his family for Jesusí sake. But he loves you too much to let you remain as weak, handicapped, and limited as you are. He wants to transform you into the image of his Holy Son Jesus.
Because God has such passion for you and me, more of our churches must become places where he is free to work his miracle of changing lives. When that happens in your church, heaven touches earth again. Christ is seen. Hearts are captured. And the redemptive purposes of God through the church are continued.
1J.I. Packer, "The Empowered Christian Life," Faith and Renewal, Jan/Feb 1992, pp. 3-9.
2Vic Pentz, "Humpty Dumpty Revisited," The Wittenburg Door, 1972; reprinted in Alice Gray, Stories for the Heart (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1996), pp. 28-30.
3Ernest Gordon, Through the Valley of the Kwai (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962), p. 109.
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