What It Takes To Grow The Church In Our Culture

Neal Pollard

It was such a treat to be among the hearty, faithful Christian men of central Wyoming and the Bighorn Basin. By Bible-belt comparison, they come from small congregations. But their passion and desire to grow the church is humongous. Near the end of their men’s retreat, they divided into groups to discuss the obstacles to growth and suggestions for growth. What they came up with was incredibly insightful, helpful to especially anyone living in the current, western culture.

Among the obstacles they listed were:

  • Lack of commitment
  • Fear
  • Political correctness
  • Biblical ignorance
  • Sin
  • Apathy/indifference
  • Misplaced priorities
  • Lack of adequate leadership

For those in Alabama, Oklahoma, and California who would say, “Those are our obstacles!”, isn’t it interesting how common our struggle is.  The same factors are holding back our growth all over the nation.

Yet, I love the suggestions they came up with. I think they are key to tapping into our growth potential throughout the country and, to a great extent, throughout the world. They suggested the following:

  • Increase fellowship—The key to growth is being in each others’ lives more
  • Emphasize and empower Bible study—There can be no spiritual or numerical growth without growing our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word
  • Think outside the box—Staying faithful to truth, get out of method ruts and overcome fear of rejecting a different, scriptural method just because it is new
  • Challenge greater application of biblical truth—Every class and sermon must have a viable “so what”
  • Be intentional in our relationships—Realize that our jobs, community involvements, friendships, etc., are means to an end rather than an end of themselves. They all exist as opportunities to evangelize.

Our brethren in the deep south, the north, the Atlantic region, the upper midwest, the southwest, the far west, the northwest, and, in short, any recognizable region of the country share a desire to be relevant and meaningful in our communities. We want to honor Christ and grow His body. But it will take measurable steps. It won’t happen incidentally! We must act on our hopes and desires. We must personally engage ourselves in enacting these suggestions daily! In so doing, we’ll not only avoid being part of the problem but we’ll be part of the solution.

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The Difference Between Unity And Union

Neal Pollard

When I was a little boy, I heard my dad contrast these two ideas, union and unity, with an interesting illustration.  He said, “You can tie two cats’ tails together and hang them over a clothes line. You may have union, but you do not have unity.”  Recently, political pundits have been making a somewhat similar contrast concerning the European Union. They are bound together economically, socially, and geographically, but there is at times a lack of unity.  These ties have not led to effective communication and information sharing in dealing with terrorist threats. Distrust, the ambitions of individual EU countries, and autonomous business dealings with nations outside its union all contribute to an uneasy synthesis between themselves.

There is great misunderstanding in the religious world and, at times, in the Lord’s church about what biblical unity is.  While there are those who believe that unity demands agreement on matters that ultimately are not established and determined in Scripture (how/if Bible classes are divided, whether to extend an invitation after a sermon, whether or not to meet on Sunday night, order of worship services—i.e., Lord’s Supper or sermon first, etc.), there are many others who believe that unity is possible where union is really what is attempted.

Scripture is the basis of unity! Jesus defined the oneness He wanted His followers to have as reflective of the unity He shares with the Father (John 17:20-21). Through His inspired writer, Paul, He emphasizes the importance of unity, saying that we are to “be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Unity is clearly defined as existing within a diligence to preserve the truth of “one body…one spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism…one God and Father of all…” (Eph. 4:4-6). The New Testament tells us in specific terms what’s involved in each of these. Attempting to be tied and bound to those who reject or attempt to change what Scripture says about these is not biblical unity. It amounts to tying together what’s incompatible and incongruous. That’s just inconceivable!

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Are We Trampling Upon Romans 14:19?

Neal Pollard

Paul’s words in Romans 14:19 seem to have fallen upon hard times, often among those who are in a position of greater trust and influence. In that particular verse, the apostle is drawing a conclusion about his instructions to Christians, saying, “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” We are living at a time where not only is peace not pursued, but strife and division are what are being chased.  We can expect the godless world to be inflammatory, provocative, and disrespectful. We should not expect the precious children of God to interact with each other in this way. Especially through this written medium, here in the information age, we often feel free to make statements we should reasonably expect will upset and divide one another and other onlookers. We may feign shock when the inevitable, virtual fist-fight breaks out, but a few moments of deliberation about the matter would have easily anticipated (and, prayerfully, avoided) it. These words of Paul’s are to presumably mature Christians, sensitive to one who may be “weak” (1) but one who is certainly a “brother” (10). Often, we fixate on the subject matter—“eating meat” or “observing a day”—and on which brother (strong or weak) we are. Those are the illustrations. Beneath the issues, there are timeless principles we must strive to follow.

  • None of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself (7).  This is the principle of INFLUENCE.
  • We will all stand before the judgment seat of God (10,12). This is the principle of ACCOUNTABILITY.
  • Do not destroy… him for whom Christ died (15b). This is the principle of BROTHERLY LOVE.
  • The kingdom of God is…righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit (17). This is the principle of SPIRITUALITY.
  • He who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men (18). This is the principle of RIGHTEOUSNESS.
  • Do not tear down the work of God (20). This is the principle of WISDOM.

There are further observations we could make from this context, but these are enough to give us pause to consider (a) what we choose to say which might inflame the sensitivities of others and (b) how we interact with each other in discussing any matter.  What do we hope to gain that we would risk something so precious and valuable to God as a brother or sister in Christ? Do we wish to bring out the best or worst in others.  Let us take care not to slaughter kindness, consideration, gentleness, and brotherly love on the altar of things “which give rise to speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:4) or “worldly and empty chatter” (1 Tim. 6:20).

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The Convictions Of The Lost

Neal Pollard

The lost are convicted, too. Don’t let anybody say they’re not. Some of the strongest-held beliefs, some of the most fully-persuaded minds, and some of the most determined hearts are attached to lost individuals. Even in the Bible, one finds the deepest rooted convictions in the heart of the lost sinner. If one wants to find a people wholly dedicated, he should take a trip into Noah’s world (see Gen. 6:5). If one wants to find a people completely set in a given pursuit, he should visit with King Solomon about the sons of men (Ecc. 8:11).

We should abhor rather than admire the lifestyle of the lost. This statement, if it has ever been true, applies to the people who spread themselves around Pilate’s judgment seat. Grounded in their hatred and jealousy of Jesus, the chief priests, the elders, and the persuaded multitude had as their singular focus the destruction of Jesus. They wanted Him gone, and any way they could do it they were willing to try. The rulers of the people had tried to ridicule, embarrass, trap, frustrate, tempt and discourage Him, but they had failed. One would think that, after three years of trying, they would have given up on their task. But, they were convicted.

The mob who finally “got rid of Jesus” (actually, they fulfilled God’s eternal plan for their and our salvation, and they did not foresee the resurrection) was a crowd we could learn a few lessons.

THEY WERE UNITED (Mat. 27:22). Pilate asked them what he should do with Jesus. All of them said, “Let Him be crucified.” No dissension is recorded by Matthew. Together, they forced a governor to submit to their wishes. How unfortunately that they were united to do evil.

When the righteous are united under the proper standard (Eph. 4:13), “how good and how pleasant it is…” (Psa. 133:1). Think of the untold good Christ’s disciples can do under the banner of brotherly love (Heb. 13:1), outdone only by our love, devotion and obedience to the Lord (Heb. 5:9).

THEY WERE DECISIVE (Mat. 27:21,22). There were no long committee meetings. There were no endless business meetings. They did not vacillate in this moment of decision. Pilate knew who they wanted crucified and who they wanted released. Though iniquitous, their decision was most expedient for their stated goal.

The Lord’s church in most places does an adequate job of planning its local work. Alas, in some cases, their best laid plans get lost somewhere between the forming and fulfilling. No congregation wants to rashly enter any endeavor–whether it be picking up support of an extra missionary or the execution of a needed program or plan. Yet, at times, the church can be overcautious and ponderous in discharging their responsibilities. Surely God was thrilled at the decisive way the disciples in the early church mobilized, spread the gospel, and reached the lost. The book of Acts is the model of decisiveness for today’s church.

THEY ACCEPTED RESPONSIBILITY (Mat. 27:25). Pilate wanted to know who was going to take moral responsibility for killing the just Jesus (24). Seemingly without hesitation, “All the people…said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” They collectively pointed the finger of guilt at themselves. Later, when Peter’s Pentecost preaching pricked their hearts, in a different way they took responsibility for this heinous acts (Acts 2:36-37).

Every person must take responsibility for his actions. Everyone must reap what he, individually, has sown (Gal. 6:7-8). In the congregational setting, the eldership must accept responsibility for what goes on among its members. When congregations individually begin to accept responsibility for themselves, theretofore avoided subjects will again be addressed courageously and frequently by the pulpit, eldership, and classroom.

We do not admire those responsible for slaying the sinless Savior. They were callous-hearted wretches darkened by the night of sin. However, they teach us the power of a united people ready and eager to stand accountable for what they decided to do. Churches will grow who follow God’s blueprint for His kingdom with enthusiasm and conviction. Let us maintain our convictions in “well doing” (Gal. 6:9).

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What “We” Do To Achieve Spiritual Success

Neal Pollard

It is an unmistakable emphasis in the book of Nehemiah. The word “we” appears 38 times in 30 of the book’s 406 verses! Working together was the continuous mindset of Judah. They knew such a mentality would ensure success (2:20).

Teamwork accomplishes much more than individual performance! If a ball team has only one “star player,” the defense wins by shutting down the one performer. If the work of the church is carried on by only one or a select few, the devil has a better chance of shutting it down. Everyone must get invested! Success hinges on it. Notice where cooperation in the local church brings spiritual success.

When we build (4:6). Not church buildings, but relationships, knowledge, and commitment. A church has never grown on the back of massive, modern facilities. But, God wants us to build up His church (1 Th. 5:11). The more visits and calls each member makes, the better we build. The more encouragement and assistance we provide, the better we build. More Christians doing more for the Lord produce spiritual success in the church.

When we pray (4:9). Facing trouble and uncertainty, God’s people came together to pray. This is reminiscent of the prayer meeting in the home of John Mark’s mother, “where many were gathered together and were praying” (Acts 12:12). What a success that was! At least 3000 or so were devoting themselves to prayer at the Jerusalem church (Acts 2:42). Preachers, teachers, and missionaries are made bold, the sick and hurting are made hopeful, those in danger, travelers, and those confused are made calm by the prayer of the saints. That is vital to spiritual success!

When we carry on (4:21). Churches encounter setbacks and suffer defeats. Willful sinners going out from among us (1 Jn. 2:19), plans or programs that fizzle or die, disorderly members (2 Th. 3:6), false teachers (1 Pe. 2:1), apathetic members (John 15:5-6), the death or loss of a church leader, or general discouragement can tempt us to give up in our labors (cf. Gal. 6:9). We need each other to spur ourselves on in completing the important works that will glorify God. It is not how many defeats a church suffers, but how well a church, no matter how many “losses,” overcomes them.

When we give (5:12; 10:37). Two interesting instances of giving are recorded in the book of Nehemiah: (1) Giving to restore what was rightfully God’s (5:12), and (2) giving the manner that God rightfully expects (10:37). Church members who will spend generously on dinner and a movie but who give the Savior of their souls comparative pocket change, like Zaccheus, need to repent by restoring what rightfully belongs to God (Luke 19:8). Churches that give by faith and sacrifice are always stronger for it, if their living matches their giving. God wants to be “first” (10:37; Mat. 6:33), and that applies to our giving.

Certainly, many other elements are needed to help a church achieve spiritual success for God. But, Nehemiah and his brethren found success by working together. That spirit of unity will help us, as a church, to go forward and do things necessary for us to continue to be a great church! Let’s grow together!

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Things That Get The Church Excited

Neal Pollard

I grew up in the church, and something I learned long ago is that the majority of God’s people want to serve and please the Lord. There are sin problems we fight, doctrinal confusions we must confront, personality issues that arise, and distractions that sidetrack us far too often, but many times we fail to recognize and acknowledge that, with proper direction, a great many Christians are ready to mobilize and be about our Father’s business.  While the elders, deacons, and preachers have been frequently meeting together for the last couple of years to plan and organize the work here at Bear Valley, we have discovered so many positive things about each other. We are closer to each other and more excited about the church’s work.  We care more about the lost and the saved, and we are eager to prove it and spread that attitude congregation-wide.  As we have met and excitement has continued to build, I have been reminded of some basic, vital things that creates such an environment.  Here are three needed things I believe that still get the Lord’s people excited.

Purpose.  Have you ever heard a sermon on the church’s work and purpose? Of course! And bulletin and periodical articles, Bible classes, and gospel meetings and seminars. We talk a lot about purpose, but when you take tangible steps to accomplish the saving of souls, non-Christian and Christian souls, and meeting genuine needs you get excited knowing that you are partnering with God to do His will on this earth. Often, you have to measure progress in baby steps, but when you can look over an increment of time and see progress, it is absolutely exciting!  When Barnabas worked with Antioch, he “encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:23).  Purpose of heart still encourages the church!

Unity.  I’m not talking cheap union that is built upon nebulous, conviction-less coexistence, but unity built solidly upon the bedrock of truth!  That kind of unity is forged by having the difficult discussions, teaching the whole counsel, and striving together to fulfill the will of God.  When you couple doctrinal conviction with the aforementioned purpose, the net result is a unity that excites!  Joining with others who have the faith to take God at His word emboldens and propels you forward to do great things, right things, that glorify Him.  The inspired David point this out, saying, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1).  Tell me that is not exciting!

Leadership. Who sets the pace in articulating purpose and urging unity? Leaders! We know who leaders are. They are the ones leading.  They know where they are going and how to get us there, too.  We hear their voice and are eager to follow.  We are not willing to blindly follow those who are not right behind the Chief Shepherd, but those who are, in word and deed, we are willing to follow even through thickets and brambles. We trust them. We believe in them.  In fact, “We esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Th. 5:13).  God has designed elders to be those “senior leaders,” and He expects us all to be growing our spiritual influence and example.  It’s exciting to be a part of a church full of people conscientious about their influence!

I’m not unrealistic or purely idealistic.  I know that the Devil is unhappy with the church who is actively working to fulfill God’s purpose, being united in truth, and possessed of church leaders who have Christ as their pattern. We can let selfish ambition and improper motivation undermine the Lord’s will.  But, let’s not be unmindful of how great the work is and how great our opportunity to partner together with Christ and Christians to do it. It’s exciting!

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In An Average Assembly, You’ll Find…

Neal Pollard

  • Brand new Christians
  • Young parents
  • The unemployed
  • Spiritual leaders
  • Those struggling with worldliness
  • Someone diagnosed with a serious condition
  • Strugglers with addiction
  • Couples with marital troubles
  • Those with loved ones no longer faithful to Christ
  • Widows/widowers
  • Someone who has been deeply hurt or betrayed
  • Those in serious financial debt
  • Those who are the only Christians in their family
  • Someone facing an enormous life change
  • Some who are experiencing great successes and good news
  • Empty nesters
  • Retirees
  • Community and business leaders
  • Those who grew up in the church
  • Expectant parents
  • Racial minorities
  • The highly educated
  • Extroverts
  • Introverts
  • The emotionally fragile
  • Singles
  • Divorcees
  • Those bearing burdening secrets
  • People brimming with optimism
  • Nurturers
  • Takers
  • Critics
  • Encouragers
  • The easily distracted
  • Those forced to attend
  • Hard working servants
  • The dutiful
  • The physically and mentally challenged
  • Daily Bible students
  • Non-Christians
  • Those who need to make serious spiritual changes
  • The lonely
  • Those without formal education
  • Smilers
  • Scowlers
  • The impatient
  • Notetakers
  • Probably 10,000 other “subcategories”

But, do you know what’s so amazing?  God knew that His single volume, the Bible, could reach into the hearts and lives of everyone of them through a single medium.  He calls it preaching (1 Cor. 1:18-25).  It worked 2000 years ago.  It works today.  What an awesome God to meet us right where we live through a message and means that fills our every longing.

May I Help You?

Neal Pollard

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly all the top 1o most common U.S. occupations are in the service industry—retail salespersons, cashiers, fast food workers, office clerks, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives, just to name a few (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ocwage.pdf).  But one of the most common complaints you hear is about poor customer service, rude or unhelpful customer service staff, being overcharged or neglected, or a bad attitude.  There may be a great many reasons behind this, but one may well be that our culture is not conditioned to serve, but to be served.  Those in positions of service may just be reflecting the culture.

This is not a new problem.  Jesus addressed that mentality with His followers in Matthew 20:25-28.  In a world insistent upon being the chief and asserting their own rights, Jesus’ message does not play well today.  Yet, it did not play well even when He taught it on earth.  Jesus was very clearly the suffering servant (Isa. 53:11), and how did the masses ultimately react to Him? They shouted, “Crucify Him” (Mark 15:13-14).

The concept of serving others turned out to be a struggle for the church at Philippi.  To that end, Paul urged them to adopt a better mindset, a proper attitude (Phil. 2:1-4).  Paul reminded these Christians that they were in the spiritual service industry.  It was their job to serve one another.  We can understand why this teaching is a bitter pill to swallow.  We all know those members of the spiritual family who are difficult to deal with, the ones who can be like fingernails on the chalkboard to us or who set our teeth on edge.  We might enjoy doing for the benign brother, the sweet sister, or the friendly family.  The real test comes in serving someone who does not make serving a pleasant, happy task.  A servant heart was lacking among some at Philippi (cf. 4:2), and an unwillingness to put others first will have a dangerous, negative impact on a church if such a spirit is allowed to grow unchecked.

Gordon MacDonald said, “You can tell whether you are becoming a servant by how you act when people treat you like one.”  Paul is urging a united, humble, and serving attitude on Philippi and on us.  Our task is not to gauge how others are growing in service, but to examine self.  May we live what we sometimes sing to God, “Make me a servant, Lord, make me like You, for you are a servant, make me one, too!”

FAMILY TOGETHERNESS

Neal Pollard

It was a bit ironic to me as a stood up to preach on the subject of family that I had my parents and two of my children sitting and listening.  How rare and wonderful that, normally separated by a couple of time zones and over a thousand miles, we were all able to be together in the same worship service!  It makes me long for heaven, when we can be in the presence of God in eternal adoration of Him and sweet fellowship with one another.  Being together with family is a blessing many of us take for granted and can maybe only fully appreciate when it tends more toward the exception than the rule.

One of the many incredible facets of God’s perfect design for the church is that He made us a family.  Paul depicts us as fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters (Titus 2:1-4).  He refers to it as God’s house (1 Timothy 3:15).  Christ is the bond that brings us together, with all our diversities (skin, background, income, education, etc.), to be a spiritual family.  The best attributes of family—love, acceptance, encouragement, motivation, understanding, heritage, leadership, unity, sympathy, assistance—come together in God’s family.  This is what has always baffled me when I think of brothers and sisters who can stay away from their spiritual family for weeks, months, and years at a time.  Who could sustain us and fill the vacuum caused by earthly life like God’s children, our spiritual siblings?

When you look at the church, you perceive it a certain way.  I’m convinced you are either drawn to it or repelled by it.  You long for her members or loathe them.  Certainly, there are the indifferent, the lukewarm, and those who are essentially unfeeling toward other members. But these are steadily moving toward abandoning their family.  Their hearts have already done so, if their bodies haven’t yet.  The indifferent and hostile may blame the church for their attitude, but we choose our mindset.  God puts us in this family (Acts 2:47), a plan He gave to help us successfully survive this life and obtain eternal life.  It’s a sign of spiritual health to long to be around, grow closer to, and be in love with the church.  Luke records, “And all those who had believed were together…” (Acts 2:44a).  What a beautiful picture!  We get to enjoy the same blessing today.  May we never take it for granted, but relish it.

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KING’S CRITERIA WERE RIGHT ON THE MARK

Neal Pollard

Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have A Dream” speech on a seasonable and rain-free day in August of 1963, but this speech, delivered to at least 250,000 people, is often remembered on the holiday in January named for him. This speech is one of the most important documents of our nation’s history and was a watershed moment in improving race relationships between black and white Americans.  Eloquently and poetically pointing out the injustices his race of people had endured and were enduring at the time, King looked forward to a new and improved day.  He hoped all people, whatever their race, would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He hoped to leave Washington, D.C., and return back to his home with a faith in the powers that ruled nationally and locally which would be translated into hope, brotherhood, and unity. His final call was to “let freedom ring” (via http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf).

Many people forget that Mr. King was a religious man, a preacher who often alluded to Bible characters and principles as well as directly quoting from it.  Inasmuch as he accurately referenced it, Mr. King was calling all people to God for guidance regarding right and wrong.  He said that character took priority over color.  He saw unity as right and division as wrong. He called for freedom rather than slavery, real or virtual.  While he was rightly championing these characteristics in the realm of racial equality, those principles doggedly stand regarding other matters.  Character, unity, and freedom matter in religious matters.

When we stand before Christ in the judgment, there is no indication that He will even take note of our race, ethnicity, or nationality.  He will look to see if His blood covers us.  Peter rightly says, “I most certainly understand that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34b-35). Corrupt behavior or disobedience will not be acceptable, no matter who we are.

Furthermore, anyone who fosters division is rejected by God. He hates “one who spreads strife among brothers” (Prov. 6:19). He condemns it through Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13.  In social or spiritual matters, I don’t want to be responsible for inhibiting a brotherhood God desires.  If I refuse to stand where He stands or if I stand where He doesn’t want me to stand, He will not accept it.

Finally, there is a freedom even more important than the noble cause King and his followers pursued. They wanted loosed from the manacles of a bondage imposed by others.  All of us, outside of Christ, are subject to a bondage we cause for ourselves.  Paul refers to this as being “slaves of sin” and “slaves to impurity and to lawlessness” (Rom. 6:17,19).  But, thank God, we can be “freed from sin” (Rom. 6:18). Then, we become slaves to righteousness.

Christians must care about racial equality, never treating someone different because of the color of their skin.  The way to right content of character, unity, and freedom is found in the book so often quoted by Mr. King.  No matter where or when we live, it will guide us toward an eternal home in heaven.