Pretend for a moment that you are one of the shepherds or preachers in a local church. As you evaluate the spiritual needs of the members, you realize that there are some who are erratic in their attendance and show signs of weakness in other areas. You also notice that there are other members who are regular worshipers, but that seems to be the primary way they express their faith. Their passions and pursuits are more secular than spiritual. Then there are the teens and young adults, many of which are fine people, but some only “endure” a Bible study while finding all their excitement in friends, entertainment activities, and social media. Of course, there are also a significant percentage of members who are truly God-focused and who want to find ways to serve God. Many of these Christians are frustrated with the lack of passion within their congregation and with how to move the church in a more positive spiritual direction.
Now the question: as a teacher, what would be your approach to solving these weaknesses within your local body? How we answer that question is determined by how we identify the goal. Our first inclination might be to consider ways to cause our weaker Christians to change their behavior. To reach that goal we might do a series of sermons or Bible classes on commitment and obedience. We could follow that with lessons on what it means to be a member of a local church. Then, to top it off, we could do Bible studies on evangelism to get people to start inviting their friends.
But ask yourself, do you think the above approach will work? Do you believe it will result in a longterm change of behavior? A more important question would be, is this the approach God has used to change his people when they were failing? The answer to each of these questions is “no.” This approach does not solve the root problem. Further, it has never been God’s goal to simply cause a change in behavior. The problem is that the above approach sounds correct. In fact, there are numerous scriptural references that pointedly identifies God’s dissatisfaction with the uncommitted. However, though our approach feels correct, it actually distracts us and the church from the real purpose. Even more damaging, the church learns that behavior is God’s primary concern. Get the behavior right, and all is well.
What Is the Real Goal?
To answer this question, consider our goal in raising children. Is our goal obedience? As a young parent, I wanted to train my child to obey. But I soon realized that while obedience was important, that alone would not help him attain the real purpose of loving God. As Malachi prophesied, repentance would begin with “turning the hearts of the children to the fathers and the hearts of the fathers to the children.” A child’s heart bound to his father will not soon disobey, just as my heart bound to my heavenly Father will not easily disobey. Consider that the result of simply insisting on obedience does not produce a changed person. What will my child do when he leaves the home and I am no longer watching? What will you and I do when no one is looking? That will depend on whether our hearts are moved in wonder of God, causing us to have a deep love relationship with him. If a church gets a steady diet of primarily how to apply scripture, the result will be a mechanical, dispassionate membership. After all, in Revelation 2:1-4, Jesus described Ephesus as an obedient church, but Jesus was not their first love.
Marriage also illustrates the principle. Husbands and wives do not endear themselves to one another by insisting on obedience to a list of rules. Demanding that we respond to each other’s needs will ruin the relationship, and the relationship is the real goal. Jesus said it this way: “No one comes to me unless the father draws him” (John 6:44). The Father is drawing us to him, not threatening us. There are certainly serious consequences to disobedience, but we must remember that the primary reason for these consequences is a rejection of God’s mercy and love. He died for us while we were still sinners. It is the rejection of the relationship that is the greater evil. The message of Hosea is not Gomer’s prostitution, but that after being loved and saved, she returned to it!
The Biblical Approach to Change
As a shepherd, teacher, or spiritual member, what is to be our method of moving a church to become passionate about loving and serving God? It will not come as a result of preaching obedience to the church. As with the brethren to whom Hebrews was written, the primary problem for Christians who are slipping is a lack of knowledge of what God has done and is doing to bring people to him. In other words, being impressed with God’s work toward us causes us to become the people God desires. Simply preaching obedience is not the Holy Spirit’s method in scripture. We make a serious error when we pluck passages that warn of consequences without considering the whole message of the text. Behavior is a result of the kind of person we have become and is moved by a relationship, not from an extrinsic demand.
For example, to keep the Hebrews from giving up because of their suffering, the writer presented Jesus as a “pioneer” or trailblazer who would “bring many sons to glory” by the same path of suffering he had taken (Heb. 2:5-11). Therefore, “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Certainly the writer warned of disobedience (3:7ff), but the warnings were embedded in a context of hope by what God had done. In the letter, we are constantly confronted with the fact that Jesus travelled the path of suffering first and is now a compassionate and faithful high priest who is bringing us to the same glory and honor. With that knowledge, we are moved to excitedly follow our Pioneer through suffering since he is with us every step of the way.
Unfortunately, our heritage has not often urged us in that pattern of study. It is so easy to make the mistake of over-emphasizing the topic of “obedience” when we live in a culture that teaches the opposite. But we must resist the urge to become unbalanced. All of us, and especially the younger generation, needs to see the ways God shows his glory and purpose in seeking a relationship with us so that pleasing God and loving God becomes the passion of our heart. Ezekiel expressed this in his prophecy when he said, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:26-27).
Moving a church to passionately serve God does not happen by simply insisting on a behavioral change. The goal is a changed heart and a changed person so that God is honored as we peer deeply into his glory and are transformed into the same image (2 Cor. 3:18).