Thoughts on Church Renewal

The Need for a Grace Awakening

So many churches need a “grace awakening.” They are stuck in maintenance mode—the congregation is coasting along on the pastor’s energy. Here is a typical way a church gets into this religious rut: A church calls a new pastor. Both the congregation and the pastor enter into the relationship with excitement and hope for the future. The new pastor experiences an initial “honeymoon” in which his faults are overlooked. The congregation enthusiastically pledges their loyalty to him. They then settle back and bask in his radiant heat as he burns himself up for them.

The new pastor may find it superficially rewarding to operate as a “source person” who brokers the glory of God to the people. If he is not careful, his ego receives a power boost by the way the church looks to him as the professional answer-man who doles out the revelation of God. If he is a man of vision, he enjoys the newfound influence he has to lead the church. But after the first year, his happy delusions melt away as he discovers the spiritual deadness of the people. Instead of unleashing the congregation, he finds that they are operating in a parasitic fashion of dependency upon Him. They are draining him dry. He’s an unwilling “pope” to them—a vicar of Christ, a figurehead in whom they take pride. He knows something is not right, but he can’t put his finger on it.

Without a grace awakening, they will be unable to give back to God, their pastor, or one another. They are operating upon reflected glory, similar to those who gazed at Moses’ glowing face after he descended the holy mountain with the law of God (Ex 34:29-35). But they themselves are not in the habit of regularly beholding the glory of Christ in the gospel. They are not daily drawing their spiritual life directly from Christ in personal communion with Him.

In a grace awakening the congregation will begin to fix their sight on Christ and what He has done for them in redeeming them by grace. As they grow in their personal knowledge of the Son of God by the Spirit of God through the Word of God, they will be eager to follow Christ in discipleship and ministry. They will become team players alongside the pastor rather than being mere spectators sitting on the sidelines watching the ministry of the pastor. They will no longer be content to accept the ministry of their pastor as a substitute for their own ministry within and through the body.

The Lost Spiritual Discipline of Meditation

The majority of church members today have not learned to go to their Savior directly by meditation, worship, and adoration. Lest we forget, meditation is a godly discipline that is resisted by our natural faculties. Our cognitive faculties are dialed into sensual stimuli. As our media-saturated culture becomes more and more visually stimulated by man-made fantasies, it becomes increasingly difficult to tune our hearts into the invisible truths of the gospel. It is work to have the eyes of the heart opened fully wide to behold by faith unseen spiritual certainties. But the labor of meditation is necessary if our souls are to be ravished by the sight of our wealth in the Son of God.

The eyes of our hearts must be enlightened in order for us to be constrained and animated by God’s love in Christ. In considering the concentration and labor necessary to meditate on the Word of God, an illustration may be helpful. By way of example, consider the fact that 37 tons of metal, crew, fuel, and payload in the shape of a Tomcat fighter jet can only remain airborne at mach 2.0 if multiple physical laws are strictly obeyed. Friction, gravity, and heat all seek to bring the craft back to earth in a jumble of disorder. So also, nature fights against our attempts to meditate upon invisible spiritual realities. The Word, the Spirit, and the mind must all come together in order to gaze continually with the eyes of faith upon invisible spiritual realities. We must individually and collectively as the people of God discipline ourselves to meditate upon the Word of God as a crucial step toward church renewal.

It takes meditation in order for spiritual truth to come alive so as to renew the mind and transform the life. But teaching biblical meditation will of necessity require detailed, step by step instruction and examples. This is because our media culture is characterized by a mind numbing busy-ness, but paradoxically, also by a mental laziness. Most people slow down by entering a “veg-out” mode of passively watching television. The enemy, however, has virtually complete control over television programming which has become a conduit for postmodern thought (i.e., no absolute truth, moral relativism, erroneous view of tolerance, moral and intellectual autonomy, etc.) Viewers who attempt to “relax, refresh, and recharge” by hours of television are unwittingly imbibing postmodern values in the process of devoting themselves to mindless amusement.

Believers need to be “unplugged” from the deadening effects of postmodern culture. If Christians refuse to stir themselves so as to dedicate their minds to love God’s truth, they will of necessity find themselves conformed to the world (Rom 12:1-2). They will be unable to mourn and grieve over the sins of this generation. Their zeal for soul-winning will fade into apathy toward the lost as their attention turns to maintaining their personal comfort and entertainment.

By contrast, biblical meditation requires mental discipline and concentration, and even self-confrontation. It’s impossible to be passive and meditate on Scripture at the same time. Sadly, even religious broadcasting has adapted itself to the passive, spectator mentality. (Note how programs on TBN hold the interest of their viewers by stirring up enthusiasm and anticipation over what is going to “happen” next. The promise of a victorious life, physical healing, and spiritual revival “just around the corner” misrepresents the way of the cross. Religious amusement takes the place of the daily disciplines of grace.)

Recognizing that Christ is our Life

Such is human nature that mankind lusts for a visible “king” while rejecting the invisible rule of God (1 Sam 8:7). Every pastor ought to be conversant with this human tendency that longs to elevate a man to the position of mediator and professional. If a pastor permits his congregation to cast him in a position of one who brokers the glory of God to the people, he will come short of leading his flock to Christ as sole source of life and sustenance. So much of today’s sectarian, partisan spirit within local churches (“I am of Paul, I am of Apollos”) is a symptom of longing for a visible “king.”

The pastor who has harnessed himself to a church that is stuck in maintenance mode must be willing to refuse to be a “source person” to his congregation. He must not allow his people to conduct personal spiritual audits based upon the successes of the pastor or the church as a whole. Personal spiritual accounting must be done by the individual believer in relation to the person of Christ. Each believer must be challenged to daily go to Christ with his sins and receive from Him forgiveness, cleansing, and imputed righteousness.

Often a new pastor majors in biblical principles. He faithfully teaches his people the precepts of the Bible, but he has not learned to display Christ so that his people have the regular revelation of their Savior. The pastor himself needs to return to Christ as first love. When that takes place, his ministry will experience renewal. As the man of God cultivates the habit of drawing near to Christ, he no longer speaks about Christ as if He were a topic; he begins ministering the Person of Christ. He is an anointed man who is displaying the beauty, sufficiency, and preeminence of Christ.

The more church members see the heart of God in the Gospel (in the Father’s plan to give us Christ), the more they will come to comprehend their right to Christ. We must preach the relational aspects of grace. The grace-awakened believer finds a new passion and hunger to draw near to the Lord and cultivate his personal love relationship with Him. What a blessed day it is when the people in the congregation begin to thirst for the Savior! When they begin to understand His approachability, His love, His fellowship. Then something wonderful happens—they realize that all of their resources are in Christ. The Lord comes to be regarded as their “Source Person.” No longer are they settling for the reflected glory in their pastor, they are drawing near to the Source—Christ Himself.

In a stagnant church, members prop up their broken, sinful personhood on carnal supports rather than Christ. Institutionalism feeds into this spiritual malaise by denying the organic nature of the church. The church is treated as a religious society, but not as the living body of Christ who owes its every spiritual breath to the life of her Savior. Maintenance mode is the result. People just “do church” but do not exalt Christ in their minds and hearts. Pastors ought to heed the counsel of George Mueller. His mindset was as follows. He made it his aim to get himself happy in Jesus every morning before he could ever attempt to be useful to others.

The Fruit of Personal Renewal

Suppose a church begins to see personal renewal taking place. How does personal spirituality translate into missions? How does the believer turn his inward renewal into outward service and evangelism? What is the connection between private intimacy with Christ and public ministry for Christ?

Jesus made it clear in John 15 when speaking of the vine and the branches that fruit bearing is a byproduct of abiding in Him. His words ought to disturb us in no small amount, for we see countless churches today in which programs have taken on a life of their own. The program “machinery” spins autonomously at high rpms with or without any abiding in Christ. The institution rules and governs itself with Christ standing just outside its Laodicean door. No wonder we need to anchor every program in the glory, preeminence, and sufficiency of Christ. Without His centrality as our constant theme, His people can quickly become blinded to their departure from Him.

Lest we get the impression that a renewed walk with Christ is its own end, we are to be reminded that our walk with Christ is expressed in worship, discipleship, service, and the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). A renewed walk with Christ produces a missionary mindset. “He who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).[1][1] “Then Jesus said to them. ‘Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ ” (Mark 1:17).

Our task in church renewal is to give the Great Commission its rightful place in the priorities of the church. We do this in obedience to the command of the Lord of the church who has all authority in heaven and on earth: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19a). The Great Commission is necessarily tied to God’s purpose to display His glory in history. As John Piper has stated in his book Let the Nations be Glad, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church, worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When people from all nations are before the throne, missions ends. Missions is a temporary necessity, but worship is eternal” (paraphrased). The glory of God is preeminent. The purpose of missions is tied to the glory of God in Christ.

Our job in church renewal is to call the church back to Christ. When her focus is upon Him, we will see her hungering for missions because she longs for countless others to join her in the worship of Christ. We do not need countless motivational sermons on outreach. When men and women are ravished with Christ, outreach is a natural result. It is not that complicated to build bridges to the lost if one is constrained by the love of Christ.

Our emphasis upon renewal is a perfect springboard to missions. Our call to return to Christ is intimately tied to God’s heart for the nations. Renewed believers will be able to translate God’s heart for the nations to “God’s heart for my neighbor.”

The Glory of God in the Face of Christ

The goal of redemptive history, yes, all history is the glory of God. If one starts with the doctrine of God’s decree (God’s plan for history before creation), it leads quickly to the biblical truth that God created the world to be a stage for His glory. The whole purpose and plan of God is founded upon this.

Many churches go wrong because they lose the big picture. They forget that God’s glory is the goal of redemptive history. In the process of that forgetting, their programs within the institution begin to exist for their own perpetuation. The individual becomes subservient to the program. The institutional grid with its inherent politics is impersonally draped over the church. The “orthodox formalism” of Ephesus takes over (Rev 2:1-4), purring like the motors in a large factory. The tragedy is that Christ is knocking outside the door, but unfortunately there is no church program for answering the door when He knocks!

The stalled church and an institutional church are both mired in status quo—maintenance mode reigns. The pastor may attempt a shotgun approach of more practical principles (“how to” sermons) with more impressive power point graphics, but often he is flirting with personal burnout.

The Need for Christ’s Spirit

God’s answer is to call the church back to her heavenly King. The call to renewal is a call to radical humility in Christ. It will cost us our pride. We will have to deal violently with our craving to accrue personal credit for our ministerial labors.

The world’s way is to lean upon an arm of flesh, trusting in our own administrative abilities, our programs, our eloquence, our personalities. To be brought low is to admit to the Lord that we have sought to operate independently of Him that we might burn incense to our own talent and diligence.

God’s way has always been to “tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). God’s servant in every age is utterly dependent upon the Spirit’s empowerment for effectiveness in ministry as God measures it. By contrast, modern ministers have taken a shortcut around the Spirit’s enablement. They have trusted in their own qualifications more than the equipping from on high.

A Divine Blueprint for Renewal

In renewal a man is brought to the place of the Apostle Paul who said, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God . . .” (2 Cor 3:5). Has God given you a vision for church renewal? Renewal takes place when God’s gifted man steps out in faith and meets the people who are hungry for the ministry to which they have been called. The Apostle Paul, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, lays out for us the model for church renewal in Ephesians 4:1-16. May the blueprint provided here guide our efforts in this most foundational and critical ministry before us—the renewal of the church of Christ.

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Eph 4:1-16).

[1][1] All Scripture references are taken from the New King James Version.