If you haven’t been with us the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about “Church: Family at its Best.” The Coles Notes version of what you’ve missed is this: when God created the church, he didn’t create it as a building to go into; he created it as a community to belong to. God created church to be a family, a community of people who come together to worship God, to love and care for each other, to grow into maturity, to serve others, and to attract others into a relationship with God and each other.
Throughout the years, people have confused churches with buildings. But this building isn’t the church. You are the church. And the first thing that people should think of when you mention church isn’t a building or an address, but a people who are characterized by their relationship with God and each other. This is God’s dream for the church, and it’s what our dream as well.
One of the problems that churches face is that it’s easy to lose track of what the church is really about. Most organizations are fairly clear on why they exist. They are generally clear on three things to do with their organization: their product, the process that they use to deliver the product, and their benchmark for success. They’re not always clear on everything, but most organizations are clear on how and what they’re trying to produce, and how they’ll know if they’ve succeeded.
When I graduated from school, I worked for a company that made salt and sand domes. We went through a lot of employees, but every employee who came into our doors understood our product. They would understand that we build these domes, we would explain to them the assembly process, and we would also explain that our benchmark wasn’t employee satisfaction or customer satisfaction or gross sales – although all of those things were important, or should have been. Our benchmark for success was profit. We were in business to make a profit, and whether or not the business stayed open for another year was going to be dependent on the bottom line.
Some of you are students. If you’re a student, you’re also clear on three things: your product, the process you follow to get that product, and the benchmark. The student goes to school in order to get a set of skills and knowledge. The process to get that set of skills and knowledge is to take certain classes. The benchmark to know whether or not you’ve obtained that set of skills and knowledge is – in theory – marks and a diploma. In theory, it’s all pretty clear.
I would imagine that if I were to talk to most of you about what you do for a living – whether you’re a parent, a student, an entrepreneur, or an employee – you would be able to explain to me your product, your process, and your benchmarks. If you’re a teacher, your product is children with a certain set of skills and knowledge. If you’re a care provider, your product is the provision of a certain level of care for a certain group of people. You’re clear on the product, you’re clear on the process – how you deliver that product. And you’re also pretty clear on the benchmark. If you’re a student, then your benchmark is a set of marks and eventually graduation. If you’re a father, your benchmark is having a child who’s as mature and healthy as possible.
Most people I talk to may not think about this on a day-to-day basis, but they could explain this to you. They’re ultimately clear what they’re trying to produce, how they’re going to produce it, and how they’ll know that they’ve succeeded.
THE CHURCH’S PRODUCT
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but many churches aren’t very clear on their product, process, and benchmark. The result has been a lot of confusion about what the church should actually be trying to accomplish.
I’ve been in churches where the desired product was BIBLE KNOWLEDGE. I can see how this could happen, because the Bible puts incredible emphasis on the importance of knowing the Bible. Some of the most ungodly people I’ve ever known have also been the most knowledgeable about the Bible. Bible knowledge is important – we’re going to come back to this in a minute – but it’s not the church’s product. We’re after more than just Bible knowledge.
Bible knowledge by itself is dangerous. Well-known Bible teacher Gene Getz has said, “Bible study by itself will not produce spirituality. In fact, it will produce carnality if it isn’t applied and practiced.” 1 Corinthians 8:1 says, “While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church.”
What this means is that we don’t measure success by how much of the Bible you know. That’s important, but it’s not our benchmark for success. So if Bible knowledge alone isn’t our product, what else is there?
When I became a pastor, I discovered that many believed that the church’s product is PROGRAMS. When I went to my first church, I asked them to evaluate me annually. Once they got past the shock, they agreed to do it. They didn’t evaluate me based on how many people came to the church, or how well the church was accomplishing its mission. They evaluated me on how well I was running the programs of the church. Eugene Peterson has said that one of the dangers of church leadership today is that it’s easy to become nothing more than a program director. But the church does not exist to run programs, or even to put on church services. They can be useful, but it’s not our desired product. When programs become the goal of the church, then the church simply exists to keep people busy and to keep them happy. But God created the church for more than programs and services.
Some churches think that their product is ATTENDANCE. Many churches measure their success by their attendance. The result is that a small church that was doing really well and adding a lot of people through conversion growth was looked down on compared to a large church that was just holding its own. The easiest two numbers to count in a church are offerings and attendance. A lot of churches measure their success according to how many people come and how much money’s collected, but that’s not a Biblical measure for success. The biggest church isn’t necessarily the most successful church. Attendance isn’t the church’s product.
Some would argue that the church’s desired product is CONVERSION GROWTH. A lot of churches really have a desire to see people come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. As much as this is important, not even this is the church’s goal.
Because many churches haven’t been clear on what they are trying to product, it’s caused a lot of confusion within the church. A lot of churches exist to fulfill a need that’s different from the one that God’s created them.
Just out of curiosity, I wonder if you would take a minute or two to think about what you believe the church’s product to be. [DISCUSSION]
I want to look in the book of Ephesians today at a passage that talks directly to the subject of what the church has been called to produce. Ephesians is one of the richest books in the Bible on the subject of the church. Unlike many of the letters that were written in the New Testament, it wasn’t written to correct any errors or to address specific problems. It was written as a letter of encouragement, and to explain to the church in that city – one of the most prominent churches of its time – what the church is to be.
You need to understand that the church in Ephesus was filled with some very real people. Ephesians 2 makes it clear that they were people who once “lived like the rest of the world…following the passions and desires of our evil nature” (Ephesians 2:2-3). If you and I had lived at the time, we wouldn’t have felt out of place in the church at Ephesus. The oldest Christian in that church had probably only been a believer for about seven years. They were ordinary people who had relatively recently started to follow Jesus Christ and become part of the church.
In Ephesians 4, Paul is explaining what the leaders of the church ar e there to accomplish. And in verses 12 and 13, he says something that will completely change the way we look at church. He says, “Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ, until we come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature and full grown in the Lord, measuring up to the full stature of Christ.”
If you read this verse carefully, you discover some facts that will completely change the way that we look at church. The first fact is that the church is the body of Christ. Paul doesn’t say it’s like the body of Christ. It’s not a metaphor. We – collectively – are the body of Christ. We are the physical presence of Jesus Christ on this earth, and he’s called us to serve the same way that he did when he was here. The people who make up a church are together the presence of Jesus Christ in that community. We are the physical presence of Jesus in this community.
Our product is also given in Ephesians 4:13: “…we will be mature and full grown in the Lord, measuring up to the full stature of Christ.” Our church’s product can be summed up in two words: SPIRITUAL MATURITY. We are in the life change business. We aren’t in the Bible knowledge business; we aren’t in the church program business; we aren’t in the attendance business. We are in the process of leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ; to leading people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
I love what Bill Hull has written. He says that the wrong question for the church is, “How many people are present?” The right question for the church is, “What are these people like?” The goal that we have is to take people who may not even believe the Bible or know anything about Jesus Christ, and to take a new believer, and to take someone who’s been a Christian for all of their lives, and to lead all of them to actually live like Christ, to experience radical life change.
One pastor writes about a man in a church that he once pastured. He called him Denny – not his real name. Denny had been in church all his life, but he had never been happy about church or about life in general. The pastor writes:
Denny is not changing. He is a cranky guy. He has been cranky his whole life. Not just about the church – he does not effectively know how to love his wife, his children cannot relate to him, and he has no joy. He’s been going to church his whole life – sixty years. And nobody is surprised! Nobody is surprised that he stays cranky year after year. No one is particularly surprised by it. It is as if we expect – that’s just Denny. Nobody is expecting him to be more like Jesus year after year. (John Ortberg)
I love to be part of a church where I see people changing, and actually beginning to live in Christ. That’s our product. That’s why we’re here. In Galatians 4:19, Paul says, “I feel as if I am going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully formed in your lives.” We exist as a church to take people and to lead them into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ until Jesus is fully formed in their lives.
If our product is life change, then we need to look at the process we’re going to use to develop life change. Even if a church is clear on its desired product – spiritual maturity – churches often misunderstand the process that it requires to become spiritually mature. It’s important for you to understand the process, because Ephesians 4:12 says that every believer in the church is here to do God’s work and to help “build up the church, the body of Christ.” This is your job. You have a part in this process.
There are a lot of misconceptions about how someone grows spiritually. One of them is that it’s a matter of Bible knowledge. But maturity is demonstrated more by behavior than beliefs. If your faith hasn’t changed your lifestyle, than your faith isn’t worth much. James 2:18 says, “I can’t see your faith if you don’t have good deeds.” Maturity is more than a matter of Bible knowledge.
Some people think that maturity comes from attending church. If you attend church, then it’s just a matter of time before you become mature. But as Denny showed us, spiritual growth isn’t automatic, and it doesn’t come from going to church. Hebrews 5:12 says, “You have been Christians a long time now, and you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things a beginner must learn about the Scriptures.” Spiritual growth isn’t automatic.
Some people think that spiritual growth is a private matter – that it’s just a matter of trying harder through your individual effort. But the Bible is clear that we need relationships to grow. The Bible teaches that spiritual growth is a team event.
The Bible teaches that spiritual growth is a process that includes three ingredients: SALVATION + COMMUNITY + DISCIPLINES = SPIRITUAL GROWTH. Once you enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit begins to work in your life in the process of making you like Jesus. The Bible says that he won’t give up on this work. But then he puts you in a community of believers who will encourage you and sharpen you and hold you accountable. And through a process of putting some spiritual disciplines in your life, over time you will train to become just like Jesus Christ. It’s a gradual process. It’s not a matter of technique; it’s a matter of training. 1 Timothy 4:7 says, “Spend your time and energy training yourself for spiritual fitness.” Just like you train to lift heavier weights or to play a sport, you can put spiritual disciplines to work in other to train yourself to be spiritually mature.
This means as a church that we will do everything we can to introduce people to Jesus Christ, and then lead them into community with others so that they can learn spiritual disciplines – like how to read the Bible and pray. The result is that we will see lives change as people become more and more like Jesus Christ.
The benchmark for success in a church is to measure how this is evidenced in the lives of the people who are part of that church. Ephesians 4:14-15 says, “Then we will no longer be like children, forever changing our minds about what we believe…Instead, we will hold on to the truth in love, becoming more and more in every way like Christ.” The benchmark for a business is profit. The benchmark for a student is marks and the completion of course requirements. The benchmark of a church is this:
STABILITY – When spiritual growth takes place, people aren’t easily duped. The main tool that Satan uses is falsehood. He tries to get us to believe things that aren’t true. Spiritual maturity results in stability – in the ability to be able to know the truth about life.
TRUTH – Ephesians 4:15 says, “We will hold on to the truth.” The word truth here is actually a verb. A better translation would be, “We will truth.” In the Bible, truth is never just something that you believe. It’s something that you live. When you’re spiritually mature, you won’t just believe the Bible. You’ll live the Bible.
LOVE – “We will hold on to the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). When you’re spiritually mature, it will reflect your relationships. It will affect the way that you relate to other people. It will change everything about your relationships.
LIKE JESUS – “Becoming more and more in every way like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church” (Ephesians 4:15). The ultimate mark of spiritual maturity is that we become just like Jesus Christ.
TAKING IT HOME
Every organization and every person I know has a tendency: and that’s to drift away from purpose. If there’s one wish that I have for Richview, it’s that we would never forget our purpose. It’s not to hold church services or to teach the Bible or to increase our attendance. It’s not to have music that we like or to creat e a fun place for our kids to come. Those things can serve our purpose, but we can never forget our purpose. Our purpose is life change. It’s to lead people, no matter where they are spiritually, to a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, until they look just like him.
I love what God is doing at Richview. We had our last Refocusing Summit yesterday, and I stood in awe as I watched God at work, leading us into our next chapter of ministry at Richview. I went home last night and began thinking about all that we have going for us. We’ve got a great facility. We have money in the bank. God is giving us a vision for the future that’s becoming much clearer. When I see some of my friends trying to plant a church, and they’re starved for resources, I’m so grateful that God has given us the resources that he has to accomplish his vision for our future.
But if I had to choose between those resources and a red-hot commitment to see life change take place in our community, I would choose the life change. My greatest desire is that we would never mistake our purpose as a church for anything – not for buildings or music we like or programs or anything. I hope that we’ll never lose the purpose of seeing people come to a growing relationship with Jesus Christ until they look just like him.
I want to take this home in two ways. If you’re here and you’ve never signed on – you’ve never been led into that relationship with Jesus Christ – today, we invite you to begin. It’s not about signing up for a bunch of church programs. It’s about entering into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. It involves turning away from your sins, realizing that Jesus has paid for your sins, and beginning that quest of growing into a spiritually mature person. If that’s you, I invite you to join me in a minute as I lead you in prayer.
If you’ve started that quest, and you’re part of Richview, or maybe you’re here visiting and still saying, “Do I want to be part of this church,” I want to invite you to become part of this adventure – not of building a better facility or helping to run better programs or to keep the machinery of the church working – but of helping in whatever way possible (and we’ll talk about that next week) to lead people into life change, into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.