Archives For Churches to Know

My sons and I have been watching many of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games, and one of the things I’ve been struck by is the intense teamwork. Recognizing that just one loss will bring their season to a sudden end, the players give everything they have together. They exult in each other’s successes. And they press each other hard to do things right even under tremendous pressure.

Shouldn’t church be the same way?

But when the Barna Group surveyed Christians across the country a few years ago, they discovered that “…only 5% of people say their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their lives.”

George Barna, the study’s director, said this of those findings:

“One of the cornerstones of the biblical concept of community is that of mutual accountability. But Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others—even those with their best interests in mind, or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so—is considered inappropriate, antiquated and rigid.”

It’s in that context that I describe the first of many features of a whole faith church.

(As background, in Needed – A Whole Faith Church, I asserted that preserving and renewing God’s earth will only become part and parcel of what it means to live a Christian life when churches have a whole faith woven into their worship, theology, and culture. I’m beginning to work out what that would look like.)

Ironically, the first feature I’ve identified does not explicitly relate to God’s earth at all. It’s this simple thing – membership in a whole faith church would not be a casual association but a deep commitment to being a follower of Jesus, to the church, and to other members of the church.

Membership, in other words, would mean something profound in a person’s life.

An article in Leadership Journal included this provocative statement:

“The church should be less like a cruise ship and more like a battleship, says Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries. Rather than emphasizing their casual atmosphere and fun activities, Sande says it’s time for churches to raise the bar, to focus on a serious mission, and ensure that every person aboard serves a vital function.”

To get a sense of what that might look like, I’d encourage you to read Call to Commitment by Elizabeth O’Connor. First published in 1963, this book chronicles the beginnings and development of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC which attracted considerBook imageable attention for its unusual approach to church life and the devotion of its members to living out that faith together out in their community.

The leading figure in the origin of this church was Gordon Cosby, and one of his formative experiences was serving as a chaplain to the 101st Airborne during World War II. Cosby discovered that the average self-avowed Christian in the unit wasn’t ready to deal with moral pressure and difficulty of any sort. The faith these Christian men expressed loyalty to and the way they lived had been shaped more by the culture of their family and community than by a deep personal commitment to God.

A turning point was when Cosby led a man named Joe to profess a faith in Jesus. Cosby was delighted and anxious to see what a difference that faith would make in Joe’s life. When Cosby checked in with Joe’s commanding officer a short time later and told him of Joe’s conversion, however, he was in for a surprise.

“If Joe’s a Christian, “ he said, “nobody in the company knows it.”

So when Cosby and a tight-knit core of other committed Christians began to come together to form the Church of the Saviour in a house in Washington, D.C., fostering Christian integrity was a critical concern.

The following are key elements of what membership involved at the Church of the Saviour.

Extensive education requirements: A person desiring to be a member was required to take six courses in their School for Christian Living. In addition, as part of the process to becoming a member, a sponsor was chosen for that person who could get to know the member on a deeper level and help the member develop further in his or her spiritual life.

Ongoing growth in faith life: The School for Christian Living offered elective courses to enable people who had become members to continue to grow in their faith. Personal study programs were also encouraged.

Sacrificial commitment: Sacrificial giving was expected and all members participated in a mission group that met regularly not only carry out that mission activity but to also worship, study, and pray.

All members are ministers: Each member of the church was seen as a non-professional minister. For this reason there was a concerted effort to identify the particular ministry gifts of each member and to find ways for those gifts to be expressed in the church. Through an ordination service for laity, the church as a whole confirmed a clear role that the particular member was called to fill.

Powerful vows of membership: The book details the vows that the first members took when the church was launched in 1947. Here are just some of the statements:

“I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ, promising to give Him a practical priority in all the affairs of life. I will seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.”

“I commit myself, regardless of the expenditures of time, energy, and money to becoming an informed, mature Christian.”

“I believe that God is the total owner of my life and resources. I give God the throne in relation to the material aspect of my life. God is owner. I am the ower. Because God is a lavish giver I too shall be lavish and cheerful in my regular gifts.”

Each year, by the way, existing members renewed their membership vows as a way to remind each other of what they are committed to and their commitments to each other.

Living a Christian life: Members were expected to live a Christian life. Here’s how Gordon Cosby put it in one of his sermons:

“It is fundamental to everything which we do as Christians, that we personally develop a style of life which is recognizably Christian. This means that in our family groups, in our businesses and our government offices, when we walk in, a light goes on.”

In other words, a deep commitment to God will lead to a common Christian culture that is expressed by Christians in everyday life decisions 24/7.

The only way a church will be strong enough, however, to be a community of people where God’s ways are lived out in every phase of life (including the cherishing of God’s world) is if being a member of that church really means something.

An early brochure about membership in the Church of the Savior highlighted the danger of being a fully committed member of their church along with other disciples of Jesus: “It is indeed dangerous for if one becomes committed to this way, all life will be different and every sphere of one’s existence involved in the change.”

When was the last time your church described membership as a dangerous thing?

I realize as I write this that a sense of intense mission is one of the things I find missing in the churches my family has visited as we look for a church home.

On the other hand, I realize, too, that intensity and deep commitment to church have too often given birth to cults, abuses, and narrow, harsh interpretations of the Christian way.

Nevertheless, the Bible and many Christian thinkers have long asserted that becoming who God wants us to be happens best and most thoroughly when we are in close, committed, loving fellowship with others.

And for everything else in a whole faith church to work, that closeness, that commitment, that willingness to be accountable to each other must be present.

This is a leap of faith we must be willing to take.

It’s a pleasant surprise anytime I read a news story with good news.

So I was delighted yesterday to read an article in the New York Times (“Gaining in Years and Helping Others to Make Gains”) that highlighted the stories of the six winners of the Purpose Prize, an award given to Americans 60 years old and above who are making a positive impact on the world.

It’s an inspiring article worth reading just for its own sake and for thinking about as you and I consider what we will do with our experience and skills as we get older. Do we head to the beach and the golf course or do we invest as much energy and time as we can back to our communities as long as we can?

What struck me were the stories of two of the winners. Elements of their stories resonated with my growing conviction that Christianity needs a new reformation.

One of the winners is the Reverend Richard Joyner. He is 62 and the pastor of the Conetoe Baptist Church in a rural part of North Carolina. The Purpose Prize award is to recognize the impact of his founding of the Conetoe Family Life Center. Here’s a brief section of the article that describes the Center and its impact:

The center uses its 25-acre garden to improve the health of the congregation members and to increase the members’ high school graduation rates.

“It’s not easy getting people in the South away from fried chicken and sweet tea,” Pastor Joyner said.

In 2005, Pastor Joyner had faced too many funerals at his church of 300 congregants. In one year alone, 30 under the age of 32 had died. Most of the deaths were health-related, stemming from poor diet and no exercise, he said. His own sister and brother had died of heart attacks.

So he founded the center which offers after-school and summer camp programs for children 5 to 18. The youths plan, plant and reap the produce, which, in turn, they peddle at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and to local restaurants. They also maintain beehives to produce and supply honey to low-income neighbors. The income they earn goes to school supplies and scholarships.

Getting involved with farming was not easy for Pastor Joyner. “I was a sharecropper’s son, and we experienced a lot of racism,” he said. “I never wanted to ever have anything to do with farming.”

But that changed. “The eyes of the youth have helped me to see the land in a different perspective,” he said. “Land is the soul. Farming gives these youth, who are struggling, the power to grow something that impacts the health of their family.”

“As healthy eating and exercise have become routine, people in the community have lost weight, emergency room visits for primary health care have dropped by 40 percent, and the number of deaths have dwindled. The youth are enrolling in college and finding jobs.”

What does this story tell us about the relationship between our love for our neighbor and how we care for the land and raise food?

And think about this from another angle – could Pastor Joyner have continued in good faith to preach salvation from the pulpit while ignoring the health problems of his congregants and community members? Could he have ignored the connection between what is done with the land and the food that comes from the land with the health of people around him?

Being completely filled with filled with God’s love compels us to treat God’s earth with love and patience and self-control. This, in turns, requires us to raise food differently and eat differently. And that, in turn, gives us abundant life, both physically and socially.

This awareness needs to be an essential element of what Christians are aware of and what our hearts are full of. This needs to be an essential element of how we as Christians live.

One of other Purpose Prize winners is 76-year old Charles Irvin Fletcher. This former microwave systems engineer has long been interested in the potential healing value of equine therapy for children with disabilities.   To implement the insights he had about how the therapy should be done, he established SpiritHorse International in Corinth, Texas in 2001. Here’s what the article describes:

His ranch is now home to 31 horses and ponies, and is the headquarters for a worldwide network of 91 licensed therapeutic riding centers that serve children with disabilities in the United States, South America, Africa, and Europe.

At Mr. Fletcher’s ranch in Corinth, roughly 400 children with disabilities, some as young as nine months, receive free weekly riding sessions on ponies with names like Buttercup and Peter Pan. The riders have a variety of medical conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida. 

More than 5,000 children have been helped through the network since the gates opened.

“I believe that horses can feel spiritual messages,” Mr. Fletch said. “They can feel love. They can feel gratitude. They can feel approval, and they transmit those very simple feelings to the children.”

He added, “The reason this therapy works so well is that children with disabilities also have a very open spirit, and the horses sense it.”

Is there anything in conventional Christian theology and instruction that would prepare us for this? Is there anything we hear in church that would remind us that we share an amazing world with amazing creatures with spirits of their own?

What adds an interesting dimension to this story is that Charles Fletcher is all about science. He is an engineer by training. His unique approach to equine healing is based on his commitment to science and measurable outcomes. Yet, he matter-of-factly points to the spiritual connection between horses and people as one of the fundamental reasons why equine therapy works.

This world and its creatures are, I am convinced, part of God’s story.

And an important, irrevocable part of our right place in the world is to be the shepherds of God’s earth even to the point of service and sacrifice. That service and sacrifice is to be part of our story. 

But too often it isn’t, and we miss opportunities to bring life and healing and beauty into this world and in doing so to honor God.  And in part this is because the Church has a very large blind spot when it comes to how we think about God’s earth.

Now more than ever that must change.