The Authority Question: Who's Really In Charge Of Your Church?
The number one challenge in most declining and dying churches deals with the issue of authority. It is that simple. I can tell you as one who's been blessed now to work with declining churches all around the country, authority is almost always the number one issue. Authority relates to the question: Who's in charge? Simply put, for good or bad, whoever is in charge has authority in a congregation.
Here's what I can tell you; either King Jesus and His Word will have authority, or somebody or something else will. It could be a particular elder or deacon. It could be the wife of an elder or deacon. It could be some committee that really has no relevance to the health and growth of the church anymore. It could be one or two particular families who have been attending for many, many years. It could be a set of outdated by-laws that no longer empower the mission of the church but rather handcuff the church from fulfilling the mission Jesus has given it. Whoever or whatever it might be, ultimate authority is not supposed to lie in these people or things. According to Jesus, authority in the church is not supposed to work that way.
Our Lord says in Matthew 28, verse 18, "All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me." “To me.” The Church is His; we are His; He alone purchased the church by His own blood; He alone has authority. If we miss this, we will mess things up fast. When we start thinking that we are in charge, and that people need to submit to us, we are in big trouble. Moreover, if we believe we are a big deal and have power that only God should have, we have drifted way off track. In fact, we are in a very dangerous spot according to Christ.
God has set things up in His Church to function a certain way. When it comes to authority in the Church, all authority belongs to Christ and His Word. Not us. Where we belong is on our faces in humility before Him, because the authority is His, not ours. His job is to tell us what to do. Our job is to joyfully do it. This is what disciples of Jesus do. And here's what we should know as Christians: there's no better place to be than in joyful submission to King Jesus and His Word. Freedom is found in submission. Joy is found in submission. Hope is found in submission. These things are not found when you and I have authority, but when we place ourselves under the authority of Christ, which has already been established by the God of the universe.
Joyfully submitting to the authority of Christ is absolutely essential for Spirit-empowered revitalization in our churches to become a reality. Let me share a story to illustrate this point. It seems like yesterday that our church received a phone call from a sweet but tired congregation that was nearing the end – First Baptist Church in La Junta, Colorado, a community of about 8,000 people. La Junta is a great little town in the southeast corner of Colorado. If you can picture it, First Baptist is over 100 years old and its building stands right on main street as the most beautiful building in La Junta. No exaggeration.
One of the faithful deacons who had served this church for decades called to see if our church could help them. "We are tired,” Dave shared with a bit of desperation in his voice.“We are down to about 14 of us and we don’t know what to do. We really can’t keep this church going any longer without some serious help. It seems our only option is to sell this building…but we really don’t want to do that. Is there any way your church can help us? We just don’t believe God is done with our church."
The truth of the matter is that God wasn’t done with this church! Just as He is not done with so many dying churches. Soon after this conversation, a few leaders from our congregation set up a meeting and got together with Dave and the few remaining members of First Baptist. After enjoying a good old-fashioned potluck meal, we spent time hearing the hearts of these faithful but worn out and discouraged men and women who had been holding this church together for many years. They shared their desire to reach young families again, as they had years ago. They talked about their hope to care for the poor and the broken in the community. They spoke of wanting to reach the lost with the good news of the Gospel. They shared many things during this meeting, but what stood out to myself and our leaders the most was their humility and longing to honor God. What we saw was a body of believers who understood that the sole authority of First Baptist is, and always has been, King Jesus and His Word. This was clear to us. We were in the presence of brothers and sisters who had put any agenda they may have had, any preferences they may have held, to the side, that Jesus would have His way in this church moving forward. Jesus was the authority in this church.
As a result, after a few more conversations, our church was eager to move forward with First Baptist, helping them enter into an intentional revitalization and replanting process. Because of the hearts of these faithful individuals, we have seen the Lord, by His grace and power, breathe new life into this congregation. Not long ago, I had the privilege of visiting this revitalized congregation, preaching there on a Sunday morning. What I observed was truly incredible. This church, which was months away from closing its doors for good not that long ago, is now a vibrant and growing church in the heart of La Junta. The young families and children the church had prayed to reach for so many years were now filling the pews. Folks who were new to the community and looking for a church had found a home here. The broken and disenfranchised were being welcomed and loved and served within the walls of this church. Little kids running around everywhere, screaming and crying. In fact, one of the long-haul members pulled me aside and said to me, “What a beautiful sound it is to hear children crying again!” Of course, I knew what she was saying. These cries were the sound of new life in this church! God was moving! True revitalization was happening right in front of our eyes.
God wasn’t done with First Baptist, just like He isn’t done with so many dying churches. The reason I share this story is because it's an example of where things must begin in revitalization. If true revitalization is going to take place, a dying or declining church must first humble itself and recognize that King Jesus and His Word are the final authority. When this happens, you begin to see passionate worship again. You begin to see dependent prayer again. You begin to see joyful obedience again. You begin to see the lost saved again. You begin to see Spirit-empowered revitalization happening right in front of your eyes.
It's true in our individual lives and it is true in our churches. Revitalization and renewal begins with submission to King Jesus and His Word. Every other aspect of revitalization builds upon this foundation. Without it, a dying congregation should not expect God to move in power to bring their church back to health and vibrancy.