What can we learn from churches that have failures or are disconnected from their purpose?
This article will explore what God calls, how we are and what we can do with practical and biblical insights to prevent breakdowns and major problems from happening. In Part 2, we will look how to recover if breakdowns do occur.
"Don't be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created." James 1:16-18
After over 25 years of research, this is what we found: Leaders fail when we forget who we are called to be. We overlook Who Christ Is; as a result, we neglect what He really has called us to.
For the most part, the Epistles are letters to churches in distress from leadership failures and disconnected from Who Christ is and His Call. James, in his Epistle, has a Jewish audience who looked to their traditions and not to Christ. In Chapter 1, James points out they wrongly saw temptations as mere testing--just as many church leaders and frustrated Christians do today. They saw God as the One who caused the evil or allowed the suffering. So, in their frailty, they saw their distress as opportunities to rationalize sin, thinking, Well, what worse thing could happen or God does not care. Look what He has done to me. This is essentially blaming God for their bad decisions and sin. The Jews--and, some people still today--thought God was allowing them to sin merely for His own amusement or for some purpose that was not understandable. They thought that God plays favorites. Or, they saw they were invincible to sin; as long as they served God, He would look to other way. This leads us to how and why we get ourselves and churches into trouble.
Ministry and life are candy stores of temptations. To be a successful pastor or church leader, one who seeks to glorify the Lord, we must have our priorities in order: the Lord, our families, and the call. If we get that wrong or out of order, we will derail, fail, and fall. All kinds of bad things will come knocking on the door of our hearts, minds, and lives. It all starts off with pride. Pride reorders our priorities, first shifting the focus away from the Lord, forgetting our families, and ignoring our calling. How does this happen? Pride is fostered by having no accountability to another while we sacrifice Truth, follow bad trends, and begin comparing our church/ministry to others. Blinded by pride, we begin to abuse power and lose complete sight of Christ as LORD.
Watch Out! Temptations!
There will be temptations. Those temptations are near us as nice-looking, pleasing lures and baits with hidden hooks. When hooked, these small bites are the basis for many problems in our churches and ministry. We get hooked when we forget what we are to be about, what we are called to do. We get so excited about new things that we forget about the main thing--following Christ and making disciples. We forget to be poured out to Christ. We do not make disciples. We forget that we are the helpers of Christ. We think we do the Church building and He makes the disciples. Backwards! This is Jesus Christ's Church. He is the Foundation. He is the Builder. We are spread the Gospel and make disciples of people.
Nevertheless, we are warned: There will be Temptation, we will be Tempted, and there will be Testing and Desires.
Tempted, as James points out, is what the Israelites did to God in the Old Testament; they did this by deliberately sinning by disobeying to invoke His anger. They used sins such as pride, greed, lust, and sexual impurity, showing themselves to be callous and unconcerned with truth or the true benefit of self and others. These inducements we face today are not new! They are clearly and profusely spelled out in His Word.
Tempting usually means to lure someone by deceit or entice to sin; test means to see if it is good. There will be people who will go after us. Thus, we have to be wise and aware. We have to be aware of our inclinations to either lean on God or on our pride or apathy. God does not tempt us in this way! He does test us, as in Jesus' example; God tested Him while Satan tempted Him (Matt. 4:1-11). We do not get even with God, nor do we have the right to do so, because He is not causing our situation. God does not tempt us nor does He lead us astray. He desires that we would be wise, learning and growing from our mistakes, avoiding temptation; and, if we give in to sin, to flee from it.
Desires is to seek out and entice yourself or someone else to sin by trickery or aspiration; this is a form of lust, and it is an evil impulse we all have. God has no evil or impulse to cause us to sin. This is the role of Satan, not of God. God is working His plan of redemption to save us, not destroy us.
God cannot be tempted, nor does He have any malice or evil; therefore He will not direct any malice to us. Yet, if we sin and we know better, we will reap what we sow (Num. 14:22; Psalm 78:18, 41, 56; 95:9; Mal. 3:15)!
"No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it." 1 Corinthians 10:13
The temptations that snare most are the usual cast of characters: Money, sex, and power. These are all preceded by pride and facilitated by the neglect of our spiritual formation. It is all about forgetting Christ and forfeiting your ministry and witness.
- Pride! The first bookend of what gets us in trouble and the biggest trap is what few of us keep guard against--our pride. It is as God has described: Pride is the root of all sins and what He hates the most. (Just look it up in a concordance or see the references below.) It starts out when we start to believe the good press, the social media, the personal and professional praises. Our platforms, because of the internet, are bigger than ever, and we think we are just what God needs. When we stand and preach or in pubic forums and social media, a sense of euphoria may come or, perhaps, fear. Either of these builds our pride; if not kept in check, this will be the fishing pole that will hold the line of all the temptations that can be had hook, line, and sinker. How can you tell if you are prideful? Symptoms can be: Disliking the reading of the Word, despising authentically mature Christians, disliking those who are doing well in the ministry, and/or being jealous of those whose ministries have seemingly more impact. Symptoms of pride include thinking about yourself first and/or believing that you are a gift God rather than remembering that He is the one who has gifted you. Do you see the sin of pride? Remove pride and remove that ability to fish for sin--the pole, lines, lures, and baits of this list.
Let us look at the Scriptural references, especially in the Psalms and Proverbs. They give an extreme case for what God hates, and that is pride. Check out these passages which we rarely preach on! Job 41:34; 2 Chron. 26:16; 32:26; Psalm 10:4-5; 18:27; 31:18; 56:2; 59:12; 62:10; 73:6-12; 101:5; 119:21; 131:1; 6:17; Prov. 3:34; 8:13; 11:2; 13:10; 16:5,18; 21:4; 24; 27:2; 28:25-26; 29:23; 30:13; Isa. 2:11-21; 5:21; 13:19; 16: 6; 23:9; Job 35: 12-13; 40:12; Ezek. 28:2; Obad. 1:3; Hab. 2:4; Mark 9:35; Luke 16:15; John 5:44; Rom. 12:16; Cor. 1:6; 4:6; 5:2; 13:4; 2 Cor. 5:12; 7:4; 10:17-18; Gal. 6:4; 2 Tim. 3:2; James 1:9-10; 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5; Rev. 3:17, and these are just a few, copy and paste them into www.biblegateway.com!)
- Forgetting Family. When we take our eyes off Jesus, we more easily remove our eyes from our families, too. That attractive someone else will be alluring. Or, the ministry becomes a job that over-captivates our attention and time, so that we are unreliable and neglectful to our families. This also happens when we think our ministry is more important than our family. We can lose focus of our families when we believe that we are indispensable to our ministry. We lose focus when we are poor managers and do not equip/train others to help in the ministry. We can easily forget our families when our ministry expands too quickly; we may not know how to copy or how to ask for appropriate help. We are called to be devoted to our family (Titus 1:6; 1 Tim 3:2; 5:8).
- No Accountability! This is the first thing that gets put aside by a person of pride. I do not need it, I am fine, I am too busy… If we are too focused on ourselves, our personal platforms, our ministry growth, and if we think we are too big or do not need to be answerable to others, we are in big trouble. We must have sounding boards and people to keep us on the straight and narrow, or we will be making major mistakes; we will fail and fall. We are called to be accountable (Prov. 27:17; Titus 1:7).
- Sacrificing Truth. We sacrifice the Truth when we start to change the Truth. No, we cannot actually change God's Word. However, people certainly do try. We sacrifice the Truth of God when we care very much about what we think instead of what God thinks. At this very point is when we begin the compromise; it often comes quietly and insidiously. Even pastors who start off good will think, "I can attract more people for God if I just simplify." This "simplification" can quickly a dilution and, then, distortion of the Word. When we keep it simple so as to be understandable, that is good. When we simplify in order to satisfy as in the church-of-what-is-happening-now, that is bad. We begin to actively spread the heresy that the Bible is a buffet of those things we like and can uphold (so we choose them) served alongside those things that difficult that we want to pass by (so we ignore them). We disregard meanings and context. We sacrifice the Truth when we seek the wrong things--a new agenda, a liberal outlook, or only wanting ideas from those who support us. At this juncture, what is the point of building a church? The result is a broken faith and a church that is lost and destitute. We are called to teach the Word with conviction, passion, clarity and always in Truth (Titus 1:9; 1 Tim 3:2; 4:6; James 1:22; 1 Pet. 3:15).
- Bad Trends! What is a bad trend? That's an easy answer: Any idea that takes the focus off Christ as Lord or what He has primarily called us to do--making disciples of people for Him for the Glory of God. If we are not doing that, we are in a bad trend. Unfortunately, we all get hooked by this. We become more interested in numerical growth rather than spiritual growth. So, we compromise the message, water down the teaching, make sure the small groups are using such things as trendy books and videos and not The Book. Of course, this gets more people, more followers. But, who are they following? Are you instructing them and teaching them to follow Christ? Or, are you teaching them to follow a Jesus of your own design? There are certainly good trends. The good trends are the ones that help us revitalize and refocus, contextualize to the community, and so forth. However, in every good trend, the Message remains the same. The teaching may be reconfigured, but the lesson never changes. The compromising comes from hearts and minds that have lost sight of the Lord. This lost focus and path of trouble doesn't affect just one because we begin to want people to see the 'me,' not the 'Him. We are called to keep the focus on Christ as LORD (Matt. 6:1-34; 1 Cor. 3:11; 1 Tim. 3:6).'
- Comparison Thinking. This is a slippery and dangerous slope. Yes, we should be aware and learn from one another. Observing others and looking at our own situations can help us to see what is not working and figure out how to fix it or remove it. Comparison--with the right mind set--can lead to inspiration for new and good ideas, studying, and learning. However, the danger comes when we do realize that God has a different call for each of us. We start thinking, "I want that. I want what he/she has." We must be satisfied with what God has called us to and do our very best to glorify Him in all we do. What must be on guard against worrying about what others are doing, feeling jealous or being envious. If we fail to guard against jealousy and envy, we can become obsessed with growing a ministry platform in a wrong way and building the ministry for something or someone other than God. We are called to the building of the Kingdom of God (Micah 6:8; 1 Cor. 2:6-10; 1 Tim. 3:16).
- Abusing Power. This gets a lot of prominent pastors in trouble and is also fallout from pride. Abuse of power can come about from the obsession of numbers and popularity for ourselves; it can come about from our perception of "our" ministry, compensation, or insecurities. Abuse of power involves the belief that the ends justify the means regardless of what the means are. This will occur when we start to view others, even friends and loved ones, as our servants; this occurs when we forget that we ourselves are servants. We think, "What have you done for me recently?" This mindset will also cause us to have a skewed view of stewardship; we will mismanage or abuse funds. This shows no care or concern for feelings, or the accomplishments and contributions of others. Power is our greed out of control; we want more for ourselves without the realization and practice to Christ and His power and His control for His purpose (2 Cor. 5:18-20; Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:3; 1 Peter 5:3).
- Boundary Issues. This is how we fall into the sex trap. Our safeguards are on the 'off' setting. To protect the boundaries for all involved, we should never be in a room alone with the opposite sex. If we must be alone with someone of the opposite sex, meet in a public setting. Be accountable and respectful. When we start to think, "I do not need to be on guard", the shields are down. The attack will begin, and we will fall into sexual sin (Titus 1:8; 1 Tim. 3:7; 1 Pet. 5:3).
- Spiritual Neglect. This is the last bookend of how we fall and fail. It starts with pride and is instigated and driven by our lack of spiritual growth. Many leaders think, "Our sermon preparations provide plenty of spiritual nourishment." This is not the case. We must be in the Word daily, read, listen, and be immersed in Christ. If not, other things will take that place. All the above will crowd out as Jesus stands at the door and knocks. If you read the Revelation 3 passage, this is Jesus knocking on the door not of a seeker; rather an apostate church (Psalm 119; Prov. 3:5-7; Matt. 6:33; Mark 12:28-30; Phil: 3:1-14; Col. 3:17; Rev. 3:20-21).
Some of us may begin to think that things are no big deal. Some of us may not want to admit temptations and failings; we may not want to speak ill of a church. We may see these things are negatives, but we have grace and forgiveness, right? Yes, we do have the Grace of God and forgiveness won for us through Christ. But, what of our witness? Disregarding the building our spiritual growth and disrespecting our leadership roles will cause our moral failures. Our moral failures affect others in our congregations and communities. These failures do not harm only pastors and their families; churches will be damaged and/or destroyed. Our cooperative witness and purpose is hampered, and we will not bring glory to the Father.
How does a church allow this?
If the leaders are not themselves growing themselves, if teaching and discipleship is weak or absent, the sheep will starve and bite one another. If the pastor is a charismatic personality, the members who are not taught in the Word will drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. Because the congregants are not fed spiritually, they will fill the gaping hole with nonsense--or worse, heresy--and rationalize it as good. They will feast on the junk food of a charismatic personality, giving cheap sermons of no substance, little to no Truth, no condemnation of sin or need of repentance, and with no call to grow deeper in the Word and Christ. The Holy Spirit is faked or forgotten. The church becomes a cult of personality. Instead of being captivated by Christ, congregants will see and treat charismatic pastors with celebrity while they move further away from the call and the role of a pastor to the shepherd the people.
A church and/or a pastor with no oversight gradually morphs into a situation where there are only "yes" men to the pastor. Shallow programs for show and teaching for pretense occur in this atmosphere. Authentic teaching and discipleship do not find a place in churches like this with pastors like these. The temptations come, and they will be grasped. The consequences are revolting. Before the destruction, there may be energy. People might say, "Look at that!". Then, the real question comes: How are people growing in Christ? What are they really doing--in service for Christ--to serve their community and send missionaries to the world? If we cannot answer these questions the right way, the problem is there. This is not a Christ-centered church.
How do we get into these traps?
It is our tendency--all of us--to want to make the world around us one that pleases us. It may not be our tendency to seek how we can please Christ and make the world better. Our inclination tends to be on Satan's ways and not God's way; while we will fight with all of our might and say, "This is not so", it still is. Our focus needs to be on the victory we have in Him and the perseverance we earn, not the desires we may have or the defeat we may feel.
The fact is, we choose to sin. Period. God does not tempt us to sin. Sin comes from our choices and from the choices of those around us.
God seeks that we avoid temptations; this avoidance allows us to grow in maturity. James is making the point that we need to be responsible with temptations and avoid them; we are not to blame God or others. The Christian life is also about being responsible! We must realize we are responsible for our welfare, the choices we make, and the consequences of such choices. By His Grace and from His Love, God will get us through them even when we mess up. But, why get ourselves in a bad situation and have to face repercussions of our actions (Rom. 6:1)?
God does not tempt us to cause us harm nor does He seek to cause us failure. Rather, God's desire is for us to persevere and be victorious in Him!
It is Satan's motive to tempt and cause us harm, cause us to fail, and cause us to be immoral. He does this so that God's character is not seen in our personal lives. But, remember! Who we have is Greater (Gen. 11:1-f; Deut. 8:2; 13:3; Judg. 2:22; Job 1:9-12; Matt. 13:19; James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8).
The fact is, Satan does not tempt us just so we can do the wrong things in life or so we can gain more in what we feel is owed to us; rather, he tempts us so we can lose more! He wants the pastor and church destroyed!
Christ has called Christian leaders not to be self-focused. We are not to be crazed over meaningless travails and trends; doing so causes us to lead those in our care off of God's path. We lead others away from effectual growth and life. It is Satan's desire to block or take away what God has given and what God has for us in future opportunities, experiences, relationships, and ministry.
What do we do? Know that God brings us into the world, as in He births us, AND He extends grace to us and saves us.
So, submit to God's control and power, and His desire to regenerate us. He created us, He loves us, and He cares for us. The question is, "How will we respond to Him (Gen. 1:26; Ex. 34:22; Lev. 23:10; John 3:3-16; 1 Pet. 1:23)?
When we avoid the snares, we are told we are approved or stood the test. (This means to test a precious metal, such as gold, to make sure it is genuine.) God sees if we are genuine and real; He sees if our faith real all the time or if it is real only when we feel like it. God looks for authenticity; Satan seeks to get us in trouble (Rom.5: 1-5; 1 Cor. 13:13; 1 Thess. 1:3).
We need to beware of failing to hear the call of our Lord because of the noise of our will.
Being set apart for the Gospel is to be totally at the disposal of our Lord and Master. If we refuse or think we cannot do it, consider this: We have our plans; He has His. Guess what? His plans will win out!
We need to realize that God is, indeed, good. He is there for us! He does not bring harm to us; rather He helps lead us out and away from sin and harm. He will take our temptations and turn them into His great glory. Because of this, we will wear an inconceivable crown all through eternity. Therefore, since God is good and since we have a reason to go through what we go through, we can resist temptations. In fact, we can stop blaming God and others, and we can take responsibility for our temptations. We can come to a place where the evils and the ways of the world will no longer interest us! Why? Christ is formed in us, and He becomes greater than our desires (John 1:29; 3:30; Gal. 4:19).
Do not be deceived, as in do not cave in to false thinking. We have to have the right view of sin and temptation. Satan wants your thinking to shift away from truth and the Spirit and to the slippery slope of sympathy for worldly ways (Matt. 4:1-11; 1 Cor. 6:9; 15:33; Gal. 6:7; 1 John 3:7).
In this day, we like to say our temptations are too tough to resist. We do face more temptations and options for sin today than in all of human history. They may seem to be aimed at us personally and deliberately, yet most are meaningless, casual cruelties that build from others and ourselves, and are merely easily accessed. The temptations are not new. The sins are not new. We just have more avenues. Consider the media, internet, magazines, or places we can go that are full of sin and temptation within an easy drive or at the touch of a button. Such ideas of temptation were inconceivable to James; they were inconceivable to people even a few years ago.
However, in Christ, we are given the strength to endure and to avoid temptations, even in our easy, "have it now" society. You can avoid sin and temptation. It starts with your mindset and willingness to allow the work of Christ in you.
© 2015, Richard J. Krejcir, Ph.D. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership, www.churchleadership.org