They say there are no perfect churches. But what if that church is yours? How do you respond to a church that does not do community life well? What if the leaders are not setting the right example? Here are a few things to consider.
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Member Question—I appreciated your webinar on how to do small group life. In it, you talked about modeling transparency—talking about how we must be what we want others to become, and in the church setting how that kind of modeling must begin with the leadership. My over-arching questions are: What if the leaders don’t model transparency? How are we to respond? Two of my underlying issues are:
- Do you have any suggestions for overcoming the inertia of legalism, self-righteousness (i.e., “denial of depravity”), performance-orientation, and a general feeling of not being safe in the context of a church setting and small groups so that we can actually “exegete” one another in an atmosphere of safety?
- What does a safe environment look like in a church? What constitutes a safe and open atmosphere where a person can be vulnerable enough to share their intimate struggles. Can you outline more specific guidelines for sharing, i.e., depth of information shared, etc.?
Other people around the country were also participating in this small group webinar. This questioner is from this latter group, and her questions are excellent and appropriate for any church and small group, so I wanted to develop a podcast to walk through the struggle she is experiencing in her local church life.
There were other people around the country that were also participating in this small group webinar. This questioner is from this latter group, and her questions are excellent and appropriate for any church and small group, so I wanted to develop a podcast to walk through the struggle she is experiencing in her local church life.
Some of the words that she used in her questions are direct words or phrases that I used in the webinar. There were three in particular, which I will explain.
- Modeling—We are called to model Christ before we teach Christ, as understood through such passages as Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1, Philippians 4:9, and 1 Peter 5:3.
- Denial of Depravity—We should not deny the reality of our state outside of God’s intervention and transformative power. We are totally depraved, which means that we are not good people. Through and through, we are corrupt.
- Exegeting Each Other—The word exegete is more of a homiletical (preaching) or hermeneutical (interpretation) term, but I’m using it to describe the process of unpacking people. To exegete is the process of drilling down into a passage to understand the fullest meaning of the text. In the sense that I used it, I was talking about lovingly and compassionately coming alongside someone to help them understand their hearts and how the heart constructs effects their thinking, behavior, and relationships.
These three ideas do not make up all of the content in the webinar, but as you can perceive, these are significant components that must be understood and practiced within any Christian community if that community has any expectation of genuinely engaging in transformative relationships.
- Modeling Questions – What does your life look like in a community? Are you trying to present a picture of Christ to your world accurately? Do you consistently model the life of Christ before you teach the life of Christ?
- Depravity Questions – How does self-righteousness play out in your life? Some of the manifestations of self-righteousness are grumbling, criticalness, anger, judgmental spirit, hypocrisy (hiding your real self from others), and lack of transparency.
- Exegeting Questions – Do you create friendships with the hope of those friendships learning more and more about you? Do you develop friendships with the expectations of exegeting them so that you can serve them with gospel-centered applications?
The more technical term for legalism is expecting your works to merit special favor with God, specifically with the hope of earning a spot in heaven. While most Christians understand this to be heresy, choosing instead to embrace a purer understanding of salvation as being apart from works, there are still yet a few subtle ways in which an echo of legalism can creep into our thinking and behaving.
Thus, legalism does have its place in our Christian culture. Christian legalism is not so much about earning a spot in heaven but earning a desired kind of favor with humanity. Here are five ways human legalism can manifest within our church communities:
- Approval—all of us have an approval drive, which is a desire affirmed by others.
- Acceptance—all of us desire to be accepted by someone, anyone who will not critique us.
- Love—we all are wired to be loved in close intimate ways, as well as broader public ways.
- Significance—we all desire to be good at something because of our inherent insecurities.
- Rejection—the opposite of 1-4 is our greatest fear–to be rejected by others.
Even though most Christians will decry legalism as a heretical attempt to get to heaven, we should be more humble and discerning about how human legalism controls our thoughts and behaviors as it relates to the communities in which we want to enjoy.
This human legalism (earning merit with others, though not necessarily with God) is what my questioner is asking. She is not implying the church believes or teaches another gospel, but the general environment of the church tends to lean toward human legalism, where the five characteristics mentioned above are active.
In that way, her church is no different from most any other church in the world. The legalistic tendencies mentioned above are part of our Adamic makeup. When Adam walked away from God, he felt shame and fear, two conditions that motivated him to cover up the new reality that made up his being.
This Adamic-given sense of shame is something salvation does not take away—though sanctification can defeat it partially. This need is where small groups and other type gatherings can be one of our greatest assets in overcoming this problem.
Call to Action
- The first thing you have to do is understand human legalism. You must know what I am talking about and how your desire for approval, acceptance, love, significance, along with a fear of rejection plays out in your heart and life.
- If you cannot perceive these things in your heart, you will never be able to fully enjoy the kind of small group life that I described in the webinar.
- Your next step is to share how these five forms of legalism work out in your heart. The process to rid yourself of any sanctification hindrance is not to run, hide, cover up, or isolate from the community. That is what Adam did. The proper response is to begin sharing the reality of your heart with another person.
- From here, you want to begin building a community. You do this by sharing the reality of your life with a few friends, and in time it is possible you can create a small group of friends that believes and practices biblical koinonia.
Below are a few simple, but powerful application questions that friends can use to begin creating koinonia environments:
- What is God doing in your life?
- How are you appropriating the grace of God into a specific sin issue in your life?
- What is an area in which you are still struggling?
- What have you lately read that has helped you in your sanctification?
- Will you help me in this (particular sin area) of my life?
- What specific way can I serve you in this particular sin issue in your life?
- What has the Lord taught you recently?
- How have you specifically applied what He taught you to your life?
- In what specific ways are you replicating the kind of environment we are experiencing with others?
- What one thing in your life that you would like to share with others, but have not? Do you feel comfortable sharing it with me? How can we get to that place where we can be freer in how we engage each other?
Her next question is what I call a “Gospel DNA” question, which connotes how the church DNA should be a culture that pursues ever-unfolding practical applications of the gospel. The specific applications she is talking about are transparency and safety.
- The gospel teaches us that we can be known.
- The gospel teaches us that we will be safe.
The application of these two gospel ideas is that we should be pressing toward greater transparency, in the context of safety, with others. This idea is what it means to apply the gospel to your life: Exporting the experience you have with God to your communities in ever-growing and incremental ways.
When you do this, then you will be transforming into a gospel-centered lifestyle. The Christian life is taking the things you have learned and applied from the Lord to those within your spheres of influence, whether those things you have learned and applied pertain to salvation (evangelism) or sanctification (transformation).
The question then hinges on whether you can find a safe environment or do you need to create a safe environment. The answer to that question should be self-evident: You create those environments before you can find them. If you want a safe environment to be real with others, then you must create it.
Safe environments are not “out there” somewhere that you can step into and enjoy. You must create those environments before they can be found and enjoyed. My appeal for the lady asking these questions is to establish that environment by studying the information in this podcast, applying it to her life, and then asking the Lord to bring her one or two people where she can export these things to them–regardless of what her leadership does.
Guidelines for Sharing
A safe environment should have all of the following elements in it. Each member of the group must know these things and be willing to own and practice them personally. There are more things than this, but they should become self-evident. Indeed, the Spirit of God will illuminate more elements as you grow in your understanding and practice of gospel-centered living.
- Freedom to speak
- Humility–everyone is the foremost sinner
- Ability to handle the truth
- Ability to come alongside in a spirit of gentleness
- Anger-free environment
- No self-righteousness (greater than/better than) attitudes
- Mutual sharing
- No gossiping–talking to non-group members about the content in the group.
- Only appropriately talking about others who are not in the group.
- You are seeking to learn how you can change–not how others can change.
- You are not dominating group time with your problems.
- Keeping the conversation to the level of maturity of the people in the group. (See more below.)
- Mutual repentance – this is the key because no group will do the things listed her correctly. Everybody will fail at this.
Small Group Care
As to what kind of information do you share, I will refer you back to the small group webinar, which stimulated these questions you are asking here. In that webinar I talked about multi-contexts for small group communities:
- Corporate – Your large church meetings.
- Community – Your large church meetings.
- Couples – Where couples meet with couples.
- Captain – When the leader of the group meets with the leader of the home.
In these contexts, there is virtually nothing that you cannot discuss. Depending on the maturity and humility of the group, as well as the individuals of the group will determine how transparent your community will be.
When the Church Does Not
Now, let’s address the big elephant in the room, which was the impetus for her questions: What if the church leadership does not embrace, pursue, practice, and teach a transparency culture? This possibility is real because it is the struggle of every Christian leader because every Christian leader is just like the rest of us—born in Adam.
Being a Christian leader does not exempt you from hiding or obscuring the truth about yourself. Being a Christian leader makes your Adamic problem worse. It exacerbates it. The higher up a person rises in the ranks, the greater the temptation to insulate and protect yourself from being hurt by others. With this in mind,
- Your first call to action is to have compassion toward your church leadership. They are caught in the throes of human legalism just like you are.
- Your second call to action is to find a leader, who may be most willing to hear what you have to say and begin a discussion about the content in this article/podcast.
- Most importantly, you must guard your heart against the traps of judgment, criticalness, and other self-righteous tendencies. There is a good chance the culture of your church will never change. It is easier to change a person than a church culture.
- Lastly, you must remember you are not the person who is going to give an account for your church (Hebrews 13:17). Your leaders will provide an account for how they lead the church. Your job is to be a joy to the pastor, not a pain in the rear end, who is always trying to change the culture to your point of view.
If they are not sinning, if they love God, if the pastors want others to know your Jesus, the leaders are obligated to respond to God, while leading the church in the way they believe God is leading them. Your job is to submit to that direction. Perhaps they will be interested in your ideas, and maybe the Lord will give you favor with them to where you can have a more significant influence in your church culture.
If not, you will have to decide what is acceptable for you to be part of that church. This tension becomes a matter of conscience.
- If you can attend your church, while not sinning against your conscience, which will be noted mostly by your attitude toward the church leadership, it should be okay for you to be there.
- But if you find yourself regularly criticizing your local church, you are sinning, and either you or the church needs to change. If either of you does not (or cannot) change, you need to leave.
Call to Action