By Ken Idleman
In 2011, New York Times best-selling author Tina Rosenberg published Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. The question she addressed in her secular book was, How do you get people to change for the better? How do you get them to live healthier lives . . . to diet, exercise, and not drink excessively? In short, how do you get individuals to grow in a positive direction?
She concluded that the masses don’t change simply because they desire to change or by getting more information. Virtually everyone who smokes knows smoking is bad for their health and wants to quit. But many continue to smoke anyway.
So, how are folks persuaded to act in their own long-term self-interest . . . to not initiate that divorce without cause, to break free of an addiction, to stop gambling, overspending, or sleeping around? Again, lectures typically are ineffective in changing people’s behavior. Nor do most people change by being made to feel guilty. Nor do people change simply by getting more facts about what they already know.
Rosenberg argues that people change best in community.
Few things in life are more important in determining the kind of people we become than the group we hang out with—the group with which we regularly associate. The behaviors of that group determine what is appropriate or cool or desirable in our personal value system. Whether we are talking about losing weight, breaking a bad habit, achieving an education or excelling in job performance . . . social support and peer pressure have been discovered to be the quickest and best way that people change.
This is precisely why psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors consistently develop and recommend support groups like Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous—groups for everything from grief recovery to post-traumatic stress disorder.
I heartily agree with Rosenberg’s axiom with this one vital addition: Our Creator God is the inventor of world change by peer pressure. He is the originator of life transformation and personal growth through Christ and Christian community, the church. The church is God’s idea, plan, and strategy to disciple every person on earth to initially follow Jesus, consistently be changed by Jesus, and perpetually be on mission with Jesus.
Few false beliefs have derailed more lives than this one: “I don’t need church!” More and more people in America today say they believe in the basic doctrines of Christianity—that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, is the only Savior, and rose from the dead. They believe God created the universe. Many believe Christ will return to earth one day. But they also say, “Even though I believe, I do not belong to any church. And I really don’t see why I should be part of a church.”
Christians have failed to impress on saved and unsaved people alike that the church is indispensable. You cannot say yes to Jesus and no to his church.
Consequently, for the church to accomplish God’s purpose in this world, we must commit to a renewed focus on being healthy and becoming healthy. The indicators of church health are revealed in the book of Acts and in the Epistles. The New Testament church had several dynamic elements: authoritative preaching, authentic worship, sacrificial stewardship, compassionate service, passionate prayer, tireless evangelism, and unpretentious and all-inclusive love. But trustworthy leaders are the most foundational and indispensable component of a healthy church. Jesus is the cornerstone of the healthy church (Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20), and trustworthy leaders are the foundation of any church built on and around him from the Day of Pentecost forward.
Trustworthy elders and ministry leaders—vocational and volunteer—provide the shepherding that will ensure church health and growth in every generation. After all, healthy things grow.
In Acts 1–8, Luke, the book’s writer, did two things. First, he described the birth of the church on the Day of Pentecost. Second, he exposed the strategy of the evil one, who sought to snuff out the life of the infant church.
In Acts 1 and 2, we see the activity of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, in Acts 3–8, we see the activity of the unholy spirit, Satan. In these chapters, the threefold strategy of Satan to destroy the first-century church is evident. All three of his assaults were focused on the church’s leadership. Why? Because to discourage, discredit, or distract the leaders would undermine the church’s health and arrest its growth. And over the past 2,000 years, Satan has not changed his tactics. He knows the best shortcut to inflicting the most damage to the church on earth is to target the leaders and influencers.
The three battlefronts for 21st-century churches are the same as for the first-century Jerusalem church: persecution, corruption, and division. And leaders remain the target. But trustworthy leaders can meet these timeless assaults!
The enemy tried to discourage the church by force and physical violence. In Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested, jailed, and warned not to speak further about Jesus. Upon their release, they went right back to preaching, teaching, and performing miracles. Then, in Acts 5, these same apostles were arrested again. This time they were severely beaten and ordered not to preach in the name of Jesus. But the persecution was ineffective; it did not hinder the gospel or destroy the infant church. “Day after day, in the temple and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:42).
In Acts 7, Stephen became the first church leader to be martyred for preaching Christ. But Acts 11:19-21 declares, “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled . . . telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus . . . and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” The faithfulness of trustworthy leaders will always overcome persecution!
Having failed to destroy the church from the outside, Satan tried to discredit her from the inside through the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. This couple sold some property and claimed they gave all the money from the sale to the church. In fact, they lied to the Holy Spirit. They held back some of the proceeds. And the divine death sentence imposed on this couple impressed on the church the seriousness of their stewardship sin. “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (Acts 5:14).
Since the early 1980s the trustworthiness of professed Christian leaders has taken hit after hit. Satan has scored big by bringing down many leaders who have fallen prey to the lure of fame, power, money, and sex. The media loves to expose those who posture themselves as virtuous, when in reality, they are duplicitous.
As trustworthy leaders, what should we do? It’s simple, but not easy. We must walk in the truth. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Tell the truth. In short, live a life of integrity. It’s what we see in Peter, John, Philip, Barnabas, Lydia, Dorcas, Timothy, Silas, and Paul in the book of Acts. So, let’s imitate the faith of those who literally laid down their lives for the truth that is in Jesus. The integrity of trustworthy leaders will always overcome corruption!
Satan’s third attack was more subtle. He created dissension in the church to try and distract the apostles from their priority tasks of preaching and prayer. The number of disciples was exponentially increasing, and the pastoral load became unmanageable.
Soon, racial tension surfaced. The Grecian Jews complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The apostolic leaders knew they had to maintain their ministry focus on the Word of God and prayer, so they wisely decided, “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility [for the needy widows] over to them. . . . This proposal pleased the whole group. . . . So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (Acts 6:3, 5, 7).
If Satan had succeeded, and the apostles had given up the priorities of preaching and prayer, it would have resulted in an untaught and unspiritual church. False doctrine would have surely gained a foothold and worldliness would have developed over time. It’s happening today in mainline denominational churches. Many are in decline and others are dividing over issues related to politics, race, vaccines, and masks.
Church leaders who pray in faith for God’s wisdom will find he is faithful to give it. Scripture says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). This spiritual gift must be elevated in the life of the contemporary church. It is the byproduct of a strong prayer life. The wisdom of trustworthy leaders will always overcome division!
God will bless the church with health and growth, whether in the first century or the 21st century, despite persecution, corruption, and division, because of the faithfulness, integrity, and wisdom of her leaders.
Any church will be united and strong, healthy and growing if it is blessed to have a growing base of trustworthy spiritual leaders.
Ken Idleman is in his seventh year as vice president of leadership development for The Solomon Foundation, mentoring and consulting to assist churches in getting to the next level. He previously served for three decades as president of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, and a decade as senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church, Newburgh, Indiana.