Beware of church assessments

  • Colin Marshall
  • 28 August 2015

It’s a good thing that today we see the proliferation of ministries that offer church consultations, interventions and the coaching of pastors. My ministry Vinegrowers is one of them. I am all for churches setting challenging goals for evangelistic growth. I am all for pastors being the best they can be in every aspect of their work. All church leaders should be driven to grow in their convictions, character, competence and courage.

However, I’m worried about the language and concepts of the human resources world being applied to churches and pastors. I hear questions like: What do we do with underperforming pastors who are not growing the church? Are we reinforcing their sense of entitlement by accepting and rewarding underperformance? What should denominational leaders do with a stalled or dying church?

On one level, these are necessary questions that need to be addressed if we are to feed the flock and grow the gospel. But these questions can lead to the secularization of the church as each local fellowship is weighed as a successful or failed franchise.

What is God’s view of the ‘church’ we are assessing?

It’s easy to dismiss a small, struggling church as ineffective, irrelevant and almost pathetic compared to the growing, vibrant, attractive ministry of the church down the road. Are we looking through spiritual or worldly glasses?

Imagine the apostle Paul conducting church consultations with pastors and members. Let’s take the troubled, divided church at Corinth as an example of Paul’s approach. In his first Corinthian letter, Paul expounds core truths that should underlie our assessment of churches.

It is God’s church (1:1-4)

No matter how small or troubled, each church belongs to God. It is God’s church in Corinth. God brings the church into existence as he calls people to be set apart as the ones who call upon Jesus Christ as Lord (1:2, 24). It is God’s act in sanctifying in Christ Jesus, not any act of their own, that forms a group of people to be God’s gathering.

The Corinthian believers call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, “together with all those who in every place” make the same call of faith (1:2). No particular church has any special claim to Jesus. He is “both their Lord and ours”. There are no grounds for superiority.

This factious church at Corinth with all its problems has been called by God into the fellowship of his Son. and therefore with all who call on the Lord (1:9).

In assessing churches, our starting point is that a church is not a human construction. It is not primarily a sociological or corporate entity. It is not an accident of history or social forces. Despite the church’s many problems Paul affirms the Christian standing of his readers.

Each church is God’s holy temple. Let’s not destroy it by our assessment process (3:16).

Each church is rich with the gifts of God’s grace (1:4-7a)

Fundamental to Christian existence is the experience of the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the body of Christ. It appears that the Corinthians had exaggerated the measure of wealth that they possessed (4:8). But Paul does not question the riches of divine grace that they had received. Indeed, they had been enriched in every respect, especially in speech and knowledge. In this sense they—and all churches lack no gift (1:7, 12:4-7; Rom 12:6). We may not be wise, impressive and influential (1:26-31), yet we are enriched with God’s gifts of true knowledge and speech.

When assessing a church, we should expect to see supernatural gifts at work that serve to build the church. We should expect levels of understanding and abilities to speak of Christ that belie the personal capacities and education of our members. For no one can say, “Jesus is Lord”, except by the Holy Spirit (12:3). We forget what a miracle it is for the most ordinary disciple to confess Christ to another.

We might bemoan the lack of leadership resources in our church, but what is really lacking is the faith and love to exercise latent gifts. We too easily secularize leadership selection and training as if we are no different to any other institution.

The successful church prepares people for the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:7b-9)

The gifts of God for the ministry of the church prepare God’s people for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians is dominated by this horizon of the coming of Christ in glory to judge for salvation (3:13, 11:26, 15:23, 47, 52, 16:22).

As we assess churches and their progress, our passion for each member is that they are blameless till the day of Christ. Only God achieves this, not our human organizations and skills. The reality of the Day drives us to evangelism and growth, not measured by church attendance, but by eternal fellowship with the Son.

What glasses are we using?

The Corinthians lacked discernment in understanding the things of the Spirit of God (2:14). So they were making grave errors in evaluating their fellowship and Paul’s ministry. Do our ministry assessment tools help us see our churches with ‘the mind of Christ’ (2:16)?

This is an edited post of an article that originally appeared at Vinegrowers.