Why Churches Lose Their Way

Joe Thorn discusses how congregations can rediscover the biblical basis of who they are and what they’re called to do.
Why Churches Lose Their Way

To many, a flagging church calls for a double dose of the latest ministry methods. Hone your programs. Adopt cutting edge outreach strategies. Find the latest training for the leadership—or get new leaders altogether. Maybe bring in a church consultant.

Joe Thorn, pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois, would just roll his eyes. In his view, struggling churches don’t need anything novel; they need to return to the basics. They need a reminder of what the Bible says the church is and what it’s been called to do. That’s the drive behind his new trilogy of books: The Heart of the Church, The Character of the Church, and The Life of the Church. The books are designed to call leaders and laity to drop distracting pursuits and rediscover the biblical vision for the church. We talked to Thorn about the books and how focusing on the nature and purpose of the church has played out in his own congregation.

Is there something about the current state of the church that creates a special need to return to the basics?

I used to be in really good shape. I ran a lot, and I was much lighter. And the result of being in shape was that I had a lot of freedom to do and to be what I’m supposed to do and be. I felt great! But over the years, I stopped running and I stopped eating well. Now I’m fat and tired and I have headaches all the time. And as I continue to age, my muscles atrophy. Many churches are like the out-of-shape me. They started out well, but they’ve lost their way. They get sidetracked by good issues that become their priority rather than the gospel and the task of making disciples. It’s easy to focus on secondary issues and lose sight of what’s most important. We all need to return to the basics again and again, whether that concerns the doctrine of God or the doctrine of the church.

Do we need greater clarity on the nature of the gospel?

Like many words, gospel is used in so many ways it has become a nebulous idea. We’re seeing a dumbing down of theology, a dumbing down of soteriology, so we just say “gospel” when we mean something else. “How is it that God sanctifies? Well, it’s the gospel.” Well, not really. It’s the Holy Spirit using the means of grace, particularly the Word of God, to renew our minds and our wills. So it becomes a way of avoiding the nuances and important details of theology. Gospel is a good word. Paul uses it; we should use it. Reformers used it. But it should lead us to precise thinking, believing, and doing. The gospel is not everything, but it is the main thing.

In your books, you identify three environments or “shapes” to describe the church. What do they mean?

I wanted a way to talk about church life with newcomers to our church, and especially with new believers, because church life is a big, confusing thing. What does it mean? Is it something you do on Sundays? Or is it bigger? I came up with these three shapes because I could write them down on a napkin and explain them to people. Then they could say, “Oh, I get it! I understand what your church is all about. I’m in.” Or “That’s not for me.”

The first shape is a circle or table, representing small groups or, as we call them, community groups. It also includes hospitality and all kinds of smaller gatherings. That environment is critical; without it we can’t do the things that God calls us to do. All those “one another” passages are much more likely to happen in those smaller gatherings than in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. So for us the circle is a critical component. We can’t be a healthy church without it.

We are not just divine image bearers; we are ambassadors of Christ to the world.

The pulpit, the triangle, is that corporate worship environment gathered on the Lord’s Day: Word, sacrament, singing, offering. For us that is a do-or-die thing. You can’t be a church without gathering under Word and sacrament. It’s critical. Now if that’s all you’re doing, and you’ve lost sight of the table, the circle, you’re going to become unhealthy and ineffective in pastoral care and discipleship. But the triangle is the most critical component for us because, historically, God has brought revival in the context of the preaching of the Word. It is where all the means of grace are brought together in the most powerful form. The church gathered, all generations, all ethnicities, we’re one people. For me, it’s the most important.

Then there’s the square, which stands for the public square. This refers to the church’s presence in the city. We’ve got these smaller gatherings in the table, the large gathering in worship, and then we have the church’s presence in the city that breaks down institutional and individual barriers. There are many manifestations of this. It could take the form of mercy ministries, or people representing Christ to their neighbors. But the idea is that we are called to represent Christ, to be his witnesses, and to love our neighbors in ways that demonstrate the reality of God. We are not just divine image bearers; we are ambassadors of Christ to the world.

Why is theology important for the way we do ministry?

Everything we do as Christians is derived from theology. It’s either a developed and articulated theology, or it’s an undeveloped and unarticulated theology. But it’s all coming from some basic beliefs about God and us. You can have bad articulated theology. You can have healthy unarticulated theology. It’s all coming from that same place. What do we believe about God, his church, and the people of God?

It’s important to, as much as possible, define everything we can based on Scripture—to understand God’s nature and God’s work, salvation in particular. We also need to understand what the church is, how believers are supposed to relate to one another. If we don’t recognize that these are theological issues, then we are left to develop those concepts or practices on either the culture or our own whims. Some people are not going to like parts of my books. But I hope we’re encouraging people to make the Book the standard by which we evaluate what we do, what we believe, and how we’re supposed to function as local churches.

One of the perennial challenges for church leaders is to empower the laity to do the work of ministry. How have you done that?

We’ve tried to do that from the beginning. About 85 percent of our members are in small groups, and about 90 percent are serving. We’re a small church, so it’s a littler easier for us. We emphasize involvement in all our newcomers’ classes. At Redeemer Fellowship we emphasize membership and explain what that is. We offer classes. If you’re going to become a member, we expect you to serve and join a community group. Now if people don’t ultimately join and serve, it’s not like we’re going kick them out of the church or anything. But we put a premium on that, so it’s natural when we’re going through our process.

Sometimes we need somebody to hold our hand. Sometimes we need somebody to kick us in the butt.

It’s much easier when you plant a church. You create the DNA, you create the culture, so newcomers are immediately invited into small groups by other people in the church. “Why don’t you come and hang with us? We’re going to meet on Thursday night.” People are constantly greeted, welcomed, invited to events and small groups, so it’s just a normal thing. It’s a lot harder when you’re turning the church around and you’re instituting something people have never done before.

You also have a culture of sending and planting. How have you cultivated that?

From the very beginning, we’ve prayed that God would allow us to raise up and to send out pastors, church planters, and missionaries. We’re always looking. Who do we see that has the potential to serve, teach, lead, or plant? We have a system in place that allows us to identify them, plug them into training, clarify their gifts and calling. Then we put them on tracks to move them forward so they can eventually do that very thing.

Once we identify a potential leader, that person is brought into what’s called Leadership Lab. This is a program in which men and women are taught what it means to be a leader in various vocations. Then we’re able to see, Wow, this person is called to be a pastor. So we move that person into a preaching lab and a two-year pastoral training track that we offer. Other people we send straight to seminary. Some people train with us and go out into the mission field or the neighborhood. We equip them as much as we can, and then send them out.

We’re in a culture that’s highly suspicious of religious authority. Yet in your books, you “go there” on topics like church discipline and church governance. Why was it important to talk about those things?

Because you can’t have a church without it. I don’t think you can be a church without the officers prescribed in Scripture. We need deacons and elders. I’d ask people who reject the idea of church discipline, “How far do you take that? Do you not rebuke people? Do you not correct people? Do you not hold one another accountable?” If you don’t, then you certainly are not a New Testament church.

Now what discipline looks like can vary from church to church. In fact, it varies from person to person. But having no church discipline demonstrates a lack of care for the people God brought to you. If I need to be corrected—and I do need to be corrected—I hope somebody will step into my life and help me. Sometimes we need somebody to hold our hand. Sometimes we need somebody to kick us in the butt.

Some people reject church discipline because they’ve seen bad examples by so-called great churches. Those examples are horrifying, embarrassing. They’re a blemish on the Body of Christ. So we need to be careful in how we carry out discipline. It needs to be done in such a way that people feel they’re being cared for, not being punished. Discipline is not punitive; it is supposed to be reformative. It’s supposed to be helpful.

We had a church member who called me up and said, “I committed adultery, and I just told my wife. I’m scared. We don’t know what to do.” So I went over there. He was already broken and repentant. She was destroyed. We had to pull him from his leadership role. He wasn’t in a prominent role, but we wanted to pull him back from his responsibilities at the church, so he could focus on being restored, on his spiritual life, on his marriage. And they came through that in a beautiful way. Church discipline came to an end, and the church never heard a thing about it because everything was moving in the right direction.

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