Does your church seem stuck? Does it feel like you’re treading water, not really sinking but not really going anywhere either? Do you find yourself wondering what a healthy, thriving, growing church should look like? Then let me point you to a prayer at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
The apostle Paul was a first century Jewish convert. Christ called him to be a missionary to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish population throughout the Roman Empire. Paul planted churches and encouraged his fellow Christians during the early years of the Jesus Movement. Through the records of Paul’s travels (i.e. the book of Acts) and Paul’s letters (Romans through Philemon) we see plenty of examples of church life. Some churches were thriving and healthy, like Philippi and Ephesus. Some churches were a dumpster fire to put it mildly, like Galatia and Corinth.
Paul did not plant the church in Colossae (in modern-day Turkey), but he was close friends with the man who probably did – Epaphras. Paul was likely imprisoned in Rome as he wrote this letter to the church in response to problems facing the Colossian Christians. The church in Colossae seems to be healthy and off to a good start, but Paul makes it clear from the outset that he is praying for them to grow into a thriving and lasting community of believers.
They seem to have the basics down. Their faith is strong. They are promoting love and unity among all the believers. And despite the circumstances they are holding onto hope through the saving power of the gospel.
Faith, hope, and love. Check!
But then Paul records a prayer for the church. As he does so, I don’t think this prayer is specific to the time and location of A.D. 60s Colossae. I think Paul lays out a blueprint for what a thriving, healthy, growing, sustainable community of believers looks like in any time and any context.
Colossians 1:9-14 // For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Let’s look at these eight points of focus that can take our churches beyond the basics.
1. Get Smarter (about God’s will & character)
Knowledge is actually mentioned twice (v. 9 & 10). Paul wants the church in to grow in their knowledge of God’s will. If we’re asked, “What does God want from us?” we should be able to answer that question. It should be ingrained within us. God wants us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus told us to love one another as he loved us. The prophets tell us God requires his people to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. These should be the guiding principles of all we do, individually and collectively. God’s will is that we should love him and others, to keep ourselves holy and pure, to honor him in all we do. Easier said than done.
Paul also prays that we grow in our knowledge of God. I think a lot of Christians know about God, but fewer of us actually know God. There is a sharp need to Biblical literacy. We must do better at learning the Scriptures. But we must also seek to know God on a personal, experiential level. Do our churches provide a space in which we can encounter the living God on a regular basis? Are our Sunday services more about information or transformation? A thriving, healthy church will encourage its members to experience God’s presence. It will instill within her members an innate knowledge of God’s will for his people and base all its ministries and programs around that goal.
2. Get Wise (through the Spirit)
It’s one thing to gain knowledge, but then we must gain wisdom and understanding. It amazes me how some of the most shallow Christians are also the ones who have spent the longest time in church. I fear our churches are not challenging us to think critically about the Bible and culture. We aren’t truly allowing the Living Word to take root in our lives so that we can interpret the times. Instead, we are being driven and tossed by every political wind without the anchor of wisdom to hold us fast. Wisdom is knowledge plus experience. Are we allowing the wise voices of the past to inform our present and future? Do our churches honor our elder saints, or do we rush them off stage so we can hear the hip young voices? Would you say we are being discipled more by Scripture or by cable news and social media? If ever the church needed wise leaders who can lead its people to a deeper understanding, it’s now.
3. Live a Worthy Life
Brennan Manning said it best, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny him by their lifestyle. This is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” Our lifestyle should be an overflow of our worship, and vice versa. Nothing can kill a church more than its members’ living a life contrary to the gospel. When we wear the name “Christian” publicly, there is a target on our backs. Satan will throw every trick in the book at us in order to bring shame and disrepute on the Lord’s church. The world is watching. The world is taking notice of the church’s response (or lack of response) to issues of justice and human suffering. A healthy, thriving church will be full of members whose lives outside the doors align with their praise inside the sanctuary.
4. Go Do Good
We don’t do good works to be saved. We do good works because we are saved. The early Christians knew this and took it seriously. Reading Acts 2:43-47 and Acts 4:32-37 should inspire us all to bear this kind of fruit. The first Christians shared their possessions, cared for each other, spent time together, supported each other, and changed the world by doing so. Christians through the centuries started the first public hospitals, schools, universities, and social programs to feed and clothe the poor. One main purpose of church leadership is to equip God’s people for acts of service (Ephesians 4). Sadly, a large number of churches are too inwardly focused, barely able to keep their lights on much less pour into the needy community they are called to serve. This year more churches than ever across America will close their doors for good. Will their communities even notice? We are called to let our light shine so people may see our good deeds and glorify our Father. Thriving churches care deeply about serving those who are not members. Jesus warned us that every tree which does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
5. Get Strong (through God’s power)
Paul reminds Timothy, a young church pastor, that God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-control. Yet so many churches, especially smaller churches, feel powerless. When our bodies go into survival mode, it’s hard to think about exercising. When our churches go into survival mode, it’s hard to think about stepping out in faith and trusting God to do something big. But Jesus told his disciples before he left them that they would do even greater things than they saw him do. How? Through the power of the Holy Spirit. You can tell when a church is relying too much on their own strength, limited as it may be, and too little on the limitless power of the Spirit. God would not give us a mission without empowering us to fulfill it! Thriving churches learn to rely on the strength of Christ, the glorious might of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit. They don’t make continual excuses about why they can’t fulfill God’s mission and mandate. What kind of church are we?
6. Keep Going, Keep Going, Keep Going
If this year has taught us anything, it is our great need for (and our great lack of) endurance and patience. This only comes through the previous point – relying on God’s strength rather than our own insufficient power. Think of everything Paul went through – shipwrecks, stonings, imprisonment, beatings, betrayals. Yet he could endure whatever the world threw at him because he had learned to rely on Christ (Philippians 4:13). Our churches are not facing persecution in the U.S. like they are in other parts of the world. But through this pandemic time there has been a dire need for endurance and patience. Unfortunately, decisions and progress in our churches often proceed much slower than many of our members prefer. Our church leaders will never, I repeat – NEVER – make a decision that pleases everyone or fits with everyone’s timeframe. Our leaders require wisdom and understanding, but our members need to develop endurance and patience, especially in the midst of the uncertainty and change taking place all around us. When things get tough, are we going to bail? Or are we going to develop a Spirit-led sticktoitiveness?
7. Worship Like You Mean It
You can tell a lot about a church by its worship. I’m not saying that what happens for an hour on Sunday is more important than the other 167 hours in the week. But there is something special about the time when we get to come together with God’s people, lifting up one heart and one voice in thanks and praise to our Creator and Savior. Even in these trying times, there is still so much to be thankful for. Worship is a reminder that I am not at the center of the universe. I’m not even the main character in my own story. Every good and perfect gift comes from above – and we gather to give glory to God. Worship should be joyful, encouraging, inspiring, convicting, moving. But in so many churches we have stripped it of all emotion and engagement. Is that really the best we have to offer God? When we think of all God has done for us and given us, is a measly “yeah, thanks, now on to lunch” the best we can give him? Joy is infectious. Joyful worship even more so. Even if everyone else around you is stoic or reserved, don’t let that stop you from giving your all in worship. God is worth it after all, isn’t he?
8. Don’t Forget to Remember
Show me a church that intentionally reflects on how God has changed the lives of its members, and I’ll show you a church that is going places. We have to know and share our story. God has done so many great things for us. One response is joyful worship. The other response is remembering and sharing our testimony with others. We get to share in the promise of eternal life! He rescued us from the dominion of darkness and has made us citizens of Christ’s kingdom! We have been redeemed! Our sins have been forgiven! This is all amazing news, and it’s true for each and every one of us. We don’t have to have all the answers to every theological question or ecclesial debate. We just need to be like the man in John 9 who said, “All I know is I was blind, but now I see.” A church that is sick and dying is full of members who have forgotten what it was like to be lost. Maybe they’ve been in church their whole lives so they don’t really have a “redemption story” – or so they think. A growing, thriving church celebrates the transformation that takes place when we become children of God. We must remember what we were and who we have become. If we forget that, then we’ve lost the power of the Gospel.
One of Paul’s greatest desires was to see churches thrive and grow to the glory of God. Church growth is not a formula. I’m not under the impression that there are some very earnest churches with fantastic leaders who will end up closing anyway. But we should take Paul’s for the church in Colossae and dwell on what it means for us today. Can we take our churches beyond the basics into a deeper understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ, the community of believers, the family of God? It’s not our job to save the church, it’s our job to be the church. And I think this gives us a pretty good snapshot of what that looks like.