By David Roadcup
The sons of Issachar are widely noted in church leadership circles for having the ability to read their circumstances and respond in wisdom: “Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do, their chiefs were two hundred; and all their kinsmen were at their command” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
This text comes at a time when Israel had divided into Israel and Judah. The nation needed to reunite under the leadership of David. The sons of Issachar knew it was time for this to happen for the sake of the nation.
The church’s leadership team (paid staff and elder team) should play this role. Their agenda should always include studying and understanding critical scriptural guidelines, the times, the culture, trends, and the implications they bring. We minister in a vacuum when we do not understand what is taking place around us.
This article is intended to encourage and build up (not tear down) church leadership groups, and to stimulate discussion, analysis, and action. My findings recorded here come from the last 34 years as a church consultant and local church pastor, having served over 800 churches during that time.
Friends, something’s wrong, out of joint, not operating correctly in our beloved segment of the Restoration Movement, the independent Christian churches and churches of Christ.
My personal journey concerning this topic began several months ago when I started seeking the Lord about where our movement has been and, specifically, where it is going. The journey started while I was recovering emotionally from the deep grief of seeing my alma mater, Cincinnati Christian University, after decades of powerful kingdom service, close with a whimper in such a pitiful and pathetic way. In addition to CCU, over the last few years Minnesota Bible College (Crossroads College), Nebraska Christian College, St. Louis Christian College, the North American Christian Convention, Standard Publishing, and many other ministries and gatherings (such as state or area conferences), etc. have been lost or are not what they once were. Change is continuing.
Why is this happening in the beloved institutions that have shaped our movement over the last century?
My discipling group members and I were doing our Bible reading regimen (one chapter a day for nine months). We came to Revelation 3, in which Jesus issued a strong exhortation to the church in Sardis. He told the church they had a reputation for being alive, but they were dead. In verse 2, Jesus stated in the imperative (command) tense, “Wake up!” or “Show yourself watchful!” and used the word for “watchful” again in the next verse, accompanied by a warning. In that moment, it came to me that the leaders of every church should continuously be watchful when leading and guarding their churches.
Scripture teaches that (1) God blesses and multiplies churches and individuals when they obey his will and follow his plan, and (2) God removes himself and his blessing/anointing in the face of spiritual complacency, drift, carnality, and disobedience. This pattern is seen in both the Old Testament (Israel’s continued disobedience, Saul, and Samson) and the New Testament (Revelation 2–3).
A seminal question: Is God frustrated with the Restoration Movement? In light of our brotherhood struggles, is he communicating his angst with us as with the church at Sardis? Or is what we see happening simply due to the changing times (cultural shifts) and events (COVID-19, etc.) that are taking their toll on us? Are we doing anything that would cause the Lord to remove his blessing and anointing?
Let’s look at just two fundamentals in today’s church.
A RENEWED FOCUS ON PRAYER
We all know the importance of personal and corporate prayer and the power it can bring to our churches. Prayer is a critical part of the culture for some churches in our movement, yet many churches talk about prayer but give lip service to its practice.
Acts 1–7 teach us a great deal about prayer in the church. In his book, Forgotten Power: A Simple Theology for a Praying Church, David Butts wrote,
Prayer in Acts was obviously not window-dressing. It was not just a way to open or close meetings. It was a part of everything they did. And the power of God was poured out in amazing ways in response to their prayers. What congregation would not want to see this happen in its midst? If we want to see power, we must see prayer.
The leadership team needs to preach and teach on prayer and model it. Our own personal, heartfelt prayer closet is an absolute must when leading. We must make prayer more a part of our personal spiritual journeys and a major part of our corporate worship experiences.
Let’s start with our corporate worship services.
In my preparation for working in churches, I discovered that, while most churches talked about prayer, many churches practiced very little prayer in their corporate worship experience. I timed the amount of prayer in worship services in several churches. I found that the average time spent in corporate prayer (total) was approximately 2 minutes and 25 seconds. If the worship service was 70 minutes in length, that means that 3.5 percent of the service was devoted to prayer. We must find a way to make prayer a more vital part of our corporate worship.
Prayer must infuse the church! It must be a part of everything the church does. Paid church staff as well as elder and deacon teams must pray. Home Bible studies and discipling groups must pray. Men’s and women’s groups must pray. Members of the worship team and youth groups must pray. Senior saints must pray. The missions team must pray. Prayer must absolutely saturate the life and culture of any church desiring to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit!
And not just typical prayer, but prayer soaked with earnestness and passion. Intense prayer accompanied with longing, pleading, and tears. All-night prayer meetings where we seek our heavenly Father’s face and plead for his presence. We need to preach and teach on prayer. We should offer prayer retreats, walks, and workshops. We need to make resources available to our people to help them grow in their personal discipline of prayer.
Is it any wonder that many of our churches are weak, sick, and operate in the flesh without spiritual power, making no impact on their cities whatsoever? Prayer is our power source! We would model a powerful example for our people if we devoted a significant amount of time in our corporate services to prayer. And seekers might also come to understand that prayer is significant in the body of Christ.
When it comes to prayer in the church, I would tell the entire leadership team, “If you want your people to bleed, you must hemorrhage!” As leaders, we must model the discipline of prayer and communicate its importance to our body as a serious part of our life in the Spirit.
THE LORD’S SUPPER—ATTENTION TO A SACRED EVENT
One of the most significant parts of any believer’s worship experience is to observe the Lord’s Supper with reverence and awe. Jesus said he is present with us when two or more gather in his name (Matthew 18:20). I think we especially would sense his presence as we remember his passion. I can see him walking among us in the worship center, touching, blessing, loving, and embracing his children. Jesus desires for his Supper to be a deeply intimate moment with each of his family members.
Let’s consider our present practice of the Lord’s Supper.
This celebration is based on our deep love for Jesus. We want to remember him, his trial, suffering, sacrifice, death, and resurrection. We give thanks in memory of all he has done and continues to do for us. In this service, we repent of our sins of the week. We ask forgiveness and recommit to following him with all our hearts. All of this and more should make up our time of remembrance, fellowship, and gratitude to Jesus for his ultimate and selfless sacrifice.
Under our present arrangement, little of what I have written is possible. Let’s examine two of the main issues:
Time: Many of the worship services I have attended move through the Lord’s Supper rapidly. I often have the sense that this part of our service needs to be hurried through to “get everyone out on time.” I have also timed the Lord’s Supper in some churches as part of my consultation ministry. The longest Passion Celebration was over 4 minutes, 30 seconds. This was a beautiful, meaningful time of personal nurture and filling. The shortest was 18 seconds (no exaggeration); it began with the announcement to take the container and peel the plastic back and ended with the closing song. We should consider increasing the amount of time dedicated to this transformational experience. Considering the extent of his sacrifice, I can’t imagine what Jesus must think when he looks at how our “Feast of the Friends of Christ” is handled.
A friend who moved from a “high church” denomination to our Restoration church described our Communion service method as “drive-by Communion.” We must give our people time to think, meditate, consider, ruminate, and muse about the sacred act before us.
The Emblems: Due to COVID-19, most churches were compelled to go to the little containers with the bread on top and the juice in the cup below. This worked well through the pandemic, but we now face an attitude of, These “creamer packets” are handy. Why would we ever go back to the mess of using trays? This breaks my heart to hear. Considering the deep meaning of the Lord’s Supper, would we have the audacity to be concerned with the “mess” of using the actual emblems of a piece of bread and a small cup of grape juice? With all due respect to the companies that produce what we are using now, I have the sense we are ingesting a piece of Styrofoam and a gulp of grape cough syrup.
Let’s think deeply about how Jesus feels about the way we meet him around his table.
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If space allowed, we also could examine the areas of correct doctrine, evangelism, discipleship, community outreach, home and cross-cultural missions, and other aspects involving the life of a healthy and fruitful church.
In revisiting the message to the Sardis church in Revelation, we hear Jesus’ emphatic words, “Wake up!” or “Show yourself watchful!”
I recommend that leadership teams take Revelation 3:2 seriously and ask the following questions:
- Is Jesus pleased with our congregation? Why or why not?
- What does Jesus want from this church?
- According to Scripture, what are we doing right?
- According to Scripture, what are we doing wrong?
- What would Jesus change about our congregation?
- What would he ask us to correct, add, rearrange, or emphasize?
So, we receive a letter from Jesus with the heading, “To the church in America . . .” What would this letter contain? What do we need to hear?
Through heartfelt prayer, fasting, obedience, and seeking the Lord, we must examine our churches and our practices. Once we hear, fellow believers, we must act!