If you’ve ever had a physical, you’ll know there are certain benchmarks for determining health. Blood pressure, heart rate, weight, white blood cell count, reflexes – it all goes under review. You get pricked, cuffed, prodded, and interrogated in the quest to measure your health.
A good doctor must be trained to discern the marks of health. If he fails to see them, he fails to help his patients.
If you’re called to pastor a church, you too must be trained to look for the marks of health. A pastor who doesn’t know what a healthy church looks like finds fresh air in every wind of doctrine. He becomes a fad-chaser, often working but rarely building something of substance. Paul describes these types of Christians as, “…children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).
It’s ironic, but to truly enjoy health, a church must exists for something outside of itself. In other words, a healthy church is a church committed to something greater and grander than itself, and is willing to sacrifice to obtain that thing. A good pastor is a man who can lead a church to make the sacrifices necessary to get there. So, a key to fruitful pastoral ministry is helping a church cultivate a heart to sacrifice.
Losing Much to Gain Much
It’s natural to think that the best way to protect a church is to shelter its resources and protect God’s people from risk. To keep Paul in Antioch or keep the eleven disciples together in Jerusalem. To circle the wagons, strengthen the defenses, and keep everything neat and tidy. We love neat and tidy. It feeds our desire to order and protect what we’ve been given.
But we must remember that the gospel did not emigrate out of well-established, well-endowed, well-protected churches in the New Testament. The backdrop was persecution, and there was a serious cost to mission. Sacrifice became a means by which the mission moved forward.
Church planting is like having kids. There are always good reasons to wait. After all, church planting is costly. We can be tempted to think: It hurts the mother church. We already have enough churches. We’re not ready to start another church. Church planting will hinder our fellowship.
While these statements may have some truth to them, here is the reality: For a local church to have life, it must exist for something outside itself. If you feel called to ministry read that again. It’s a really important thing to remember.
In his Letters and Papers From Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.” The Great Commission is a claim upon us to sacrifice in order to bring life to others.
In a church that I led, we were experiencing a season of difficulty. People were upset, some had decided to leave, and there was a distinct lack of momentum. In fact, it seemed so bad that we thought only a good dose of mission could solve the problem. So we planted a church! The elders decided that we needed to get our eyes off of ourselves and on to the fields. Our church rebounded, and the church plant took off.
The church exists to reproduce itself, and this only happens by the church pouring itself out. The harvest Jesus spoke about (Matthew 9:37) requires our own incarnation, self-emptying, and self-sacrifice. The testimony of the book of Acts is that the gospel spreads by the power of God through the sacrifices of his people. The people sold their property and gave the money to the mission of the church (Acts 4:34). Stephen was stoned to death for boldly proclaiming the gospel (Acts 7:58). Philip went to the people of Samaria (Acts 8:5), a people thought to be unclean by the Jews. Peter baptized the family of the Gentile, Cornelius (Acts 10:47). Paul endured being arrested, beaten, stoned, and constantly persecuted for preaching the gospel.
The point is, the church reproduces itself through sacrifice.
The Sacrifice of Raising Up Leaders
One of my favorite books of the Bible is, curiously, Philemon. I love it because it offers an isolated snapshot of Paul’s leadership in one particular situation. Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon. Onesimus deserted Philemon and, through the wonderful workings of Providence, ended up in the company of Paul. Through the ministry of Paul, Onesimus was converted to Christ and became a valuable ministry partner to Paul. Paul says of Onesimus, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (verse 11).
But Paul was sending him back to Philemon.
Now, just consider the circumstances around Paul. He was an older man, confined to prison. Onesimus was converted under his ministry. Paul fathered him to the point where he became an effective minister under Paul. “Though formerly he was useless” as an unbeliever (v.11), he became essential to Paul – he calls him, “…my very heart” (v. 12). Onesimus was Paul’s right hand man, a key team member.
Yet, all of these unbelievable assets did not prevent Paul from evaluating whether there may be some prior claim upon Onesimus, or whether he may be more useful to someone else. Paul was so committed to the gospel that he was willing to sacrifice even his most valuable human resource for the gospel mission.
One of the most painful/joyful realities of leadership is that training leaders is inherently sacrificial. This means God has called us to pour into some men so that people in another church, another city, another network, another part of the world will be helped. To expend our time and energy for something outside of ourselves. John Piper once said, “No local church can afford to go without the encouragement and nourishment that will come to it by sending away its best people.”
It’s just another way to say the healthy church exists for something outside of itself.
Onesimus represents sacrifice! In sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul was relinquishing his claims upon Onesimus. He was releasing one of his most valuable gospel-assets. For the sake of reconciliation and the spread of the gospel, Paul was giving up one of his most precious gospel-partners.
The Great Commission invites us to ask not, “What is best for me?”, but, “What is best for the church and the spread of the gospel?” Paul was even willing to sacrifice his own financial stability for the sake of seeing Onesimus used in the most strategic way possible: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (verse 18).
Sending our best often costs us. It gets charged to our accounts. But God has ways of converting our sacrifices into health.
As a pastor, are you willing to makes sacrifices in order to advance the Great Commission? Are you willing to give up your most valuable, mature believers in order to see the gospel go to hard places? How we relate to these sacrifices reveals much about how far we are able to look ahead and how big God really is to us.
One fascinating twist to this story is that Onesimus may have eventually became the Bishop of Ephesus. Think about it. What if Paul had never released Onesimus to go back to Philemon? What if he had just made it about his ministry, his needs, his thing? But he didn’t. Paul saw that God was glorified in what he was willing to sacrifice.
For a church to be healthy, it must exist for something outside of itself. Does your vision of ministry include the kind of sacrifice necessary to help the church get there?