In my limited involvement in helping congregations in difficult circumstances in our District, I keep seeing different manifestations of the same problem. Unhealthy congregations commonly have problems with integrity. I will use a simple definition for integrity. In the Church, integrity is when the teachings and mission of the Bible, and the teachings and mission of the congregation, match.
This is not a problem with the Bible. While this should be self-evident, too many congregations and denominations have essentially tried to adapt–and as a result discredit–the Bible in trying to get the Bible and the practices of the local congregation lined up again. As historical criticism has led whole church bodies off into what’s called the “social Gospel,” we have seen plenty of examples of this. Now, a self-serving misinterpretation of the Bible’s teaching on “love” is used to browbeat Christians into tolerating all sorts of immorality.
Now, it is not the Church’s job to play judge in such matters, but it is the Church’s job to preach and teach what the Word says to these matters while striving to work lovingly with those who may be in error according to the Bible’s standards. It’s just that the world places great pressure on Christians not to do that, but rather to tolerate. In order to justify such toleration, many local churches and denominations have had to bend the Bible to fit the situation rather than teach the Bible straight up. This is where integrity has been lost. It shouldn’t surprise us to see that the fastest declining denominations in American Christianity include such denominations as the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the new leader in decline, the ELCA.
But for the local congregation, regardless of denominational stripe, the problem of integrity is no less daunting despite overall agreements that we live by the Word of God. Walk into many local congregations and the problem is not what the national church body is saying/doing nearly as much as what the people in that place are saying/doing/not doing. Local churches are lacking in integrity because of internal factors as much as external factors. “Practicing what we preach” sounds like a remote ideal for many congregations. Nice in theory if impossible in reality.
What accounts for this lack of integrity? Often it’s many years of bad decisions made for the wrong reasons under good intentions which still lack any comprehension of the long-term effects on the body as a whole. As Peter Steinke puts it, maintaining peace and harmony becomes more important than the congregation’s integrity. Translation: Keeping a few influential types happy becomes more important than doing what’s right for the congregation as a whole.
As such, these short-sighted actions effectively mask the deeper problems in the system…at least for a while. Dirt swept under the rug is never gone. It’s only hidden until the dirt must again come out. And deferring cleaning the floor until a later date usually makes it that much harder to do when the time comes to actually clean the floor. “Taking the easy way out” is one of the main contributors to this lack of integrity in local congregations. The “easy button” eventually fails and we have to do the hard things that have to be done to get our integrity back.
For pastors and quality lay leaders who no longer can avoid making these changes, it often means facing the ire of the privileged few who are facing disenfranchisement through the actions required to restore the integrity of the congregation as a whole. Expect the disenfranchised to pack their bags, crying injustice all the way. They will be the first to question the congregation’s integrity. It’s a ruse. The truth is actually that the congregation may not have shown this much integrity in a long time. The good news is that most congregations have a “silent majority” who, although they may struggle to understand what’s going on, often recognize it when changes become too necessary to avoid. The only problem is that this majority is silent. It would make things better if they would actually get up and speak (especially out of the Scriptures). When the silent majority starts to speak up, you know you are on your way back to health. Clearly it’s become safer for them to speak and that’s why they are.
So, what can a congregation do to start restoring its integrity, where its teaching and mission start to match up with the Scriptures? A few suggestions…
1. Reexamine your recent history (past 20-30 years) and be honest about it. Look at the most important decisions that were made and ask why they were made. Was the decision about the future of the whole or was it to appease a certain group or person in the system? In so doing, you are not attempting to castigate the intentions of anyone in particular, you are learning how the congregation as a whole thinks and makes its decisions. You are also learning who or what the system fears the most. Often, lack of peace/harmony is the great enemy in the eyes of the majority in the congregation. Unfortunately, peace and harmony are not the best factors for making the big decisions. In fact, they can be plain awful.
2. Consider establishing 4-5 core values in your congregation which, when its time to make big decisions, are the non-negotiable factors in making the decision. These core values, of course, need to be Biblical and rooted in the Gospel. Have your congregational assembly approve these values as a body and remind them of their approval of these values when they are challenged in the decision-making process. Then the changes which will restore integrity don’t fall just on the pastor or the most prominent lay leaders. It is now the will of the congregation.
3. Consider establishing some sort of policy-based governance. One can invest too much importance on policies, but the fact of the matter is that well thought out policies on governance and other aspects of congregational practice, approved by the congregational assembly, save more hides than a taxidermist. Again, done rightly these policies start to become the will of the congregation and start to galvanize a new way of thinking in the congregation. Integrity won’t be far behind.
4. Remember whose Church it really is. This really is Principle #1, but I figured the practicality of the first three suggestions probably kept your interest better than if I had led with this. The fact of the matter is that a Christian congregation’s integrity is defined by Christ and not the the intentions of anyone else in the congregation, no matter how well intentioned those people may think they are. Where Christ is number one, Christians are putting their own opinions in subjugation to God’s will. Unhealthy congregations pray “Thy will be done” every Sunday, but do they mean it? Where Christ is #1, we don’t have to wonder about the answer to the question.
I’ve written before that there is no perfect Church, not where sin abounds. Still, both individually and corporately, Christians indeed can do much to brighten the greenness of the grass on their side of the fence. It’s really not rocket science. Letting Christ shine as our Lord and Savior, churches can get their integrity back. It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding for the long haul and the future of the congregation.
With prayers for health for all Christian congregations who struggle in these last days,