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In 1988, my then-wife committed adultery and left our nine-year marriage. She subsequently divorced me in 1991. During the first year of the separation, no one from my church contacted me or came alongside me to assist in any way. In one day, I lost my wife and two children, an irreparable breach in a family. After the first year of solitude, I went to my assistant pastor of this 1200-member church and asked him why no one in any leadership capacity had come alongside me, inquired about me, or tried to help me through the most challenging time of my life. My separation and subsequent divorce were well-known in our church because I was well-known.
The assistant pastor responded by saying, “You did not break your leg.” Though it was awkward, I appreciated his words—in a sense. They were honest, and he was transparent. He explained that if I had broken my leg, the church would know what to do because they knew how to send flowers, prepare meals, give money, and visit hospitals. They did not know what to do with someone like me. After a moment of reflection, I impulsively responded, “Please let me know if you encounter someone in a similar situation because I know what to do.” My response to him was more arrogant than honest. The truth was that I did not have a clue what to do. I could not help myself, let alone help anyone else. I was no different from the church I was hoping would help me.
I have not shared this story with you because I am angry. I am not mad. I have not shared this story with you because I am bitter or have an ax to grind. I have not shared this story to mentally manipulate you to anger. I share this story with you because you need to know my worldview regarding the local church. You need to understand my soul care presuppositions. I cannot detach myself from my worldview or presuppositions any more than I can stop being a Christian. I spent the next twelve years learning how to do soul care, mainly on me because I did not know how to disciple myself. What I did not know was that God was writing a grander script to create a long-form narrative for how I would spend the rest of my life.
My passion for sharing the life-changing message of the gospel was born out of a broken heart restored by God and redeemed for His fame. – Rick Thomas
My pastor and the other leaders of our large church did not know how to do soul care. They could not take a broken-down Christian and walk him through the transformational steps to be whole again. They could not provide the transformational contexts for the congregation to receive and provide soul care. It is a miracle that God restored me despite my ignorance and the inability of our local church. My experience is the point of the question I asked at the beginning: Why do you attend your church? My concern is that most believers have insufficient or even selfish reasons for their church attendance, which is part of why church attendance is declining.
In 2001, a well-known Christian leader asked me why I was a member of the church I attended at that time. I said, “Because of the preaching.” He did not respond to my answer, but I have never forgotten his question, which has been rolling around my brain ever since. If you asked anyone in the large church I attended in 1988 why they participated in that church, nearly everyone would have said because of the preaching. That church was a preaching center; it was not a discipleship community. It was a famous church—within their circle of churches—for preaching. At one point, it was the king of the hill when it came to popularity, a popularity built upon the personality and preaching style of the preacher.
Today, it is a congregational shell, held together by a handful of gray-haired loyalists and a few zealots. Back then, my church was vibrant. We were doing ministry worldwide, but when it came to soul problems and soul care, we could not help each other because we did not know how. The truth is that the pastor was a spiritual abuser with a gift for preaching. That church and that pastor are not abnormal. I have seen this scenario play out hundreds of times with individuals, couples, and families. I’m not speaking of abuse per se, but insufficient soul care practices. Nearly all of these hurting souls were part of the conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing, and doctrinally sound churches. It is similar to a hospital with the best equipment, but the doctors and staff lack the training to help the hurting.
If your first response to why you attend your church is the preaching, I appeal to you to rethink why you attend. Your first reason must be better than that. Preaching is vital, but we can go beyond being the best preaching center in town. Where would folks place the accent mark in your church? Is it more of a preaching center, a discipleship community, or something else? Each church has an emphasis which creates the appeal.
The best spot on the ecclesiastical spectrum to place the accent mark is on the gospel. The purpose of Christ’s—the gospel—coming was to transform people, which begins at salvation and continues through progressive sanctification until every believer experiences glorification in heaven. Being born again does not bring complete sanctification. Our salvation is a point-in-time, non-repeatable event. Like walking into a fitness center for the first time, it gets you in the door, but it does not transform you. Progressive sanctification is our daily working out of salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). The primary contexts are our homes and our local churches.
Progressive transformation is weak in many churches, and because some churches don’t sufficiently address this problem, some of God’s children are unnecessarily struggling. – Rick Thomas
I praise God for fantastic preaching, but you do not have enough if that is all you have. The last few years have seen good preaching and good preachers rise and fall. They built their local congregations on one person’s personality, and the church fell proportionally when he fell. There has been a lot of cyber talk about why these ministries and preachers crumbled. The reason is simple: They did not do sanctification well, starting with themselves. Poor sanctification practices will eventually manifest in a person, marriage, family, and organization. It almost always goes that way, which makes assessing the problem somewhat straightforward.
One of the ways you can discern how well your leadership understands and practices sanctification is by evaluating the condition of the sheep. If the church people are not well cared for in their sanctification, it points to deficiencies within the leadership to provide that care. This problem may be more serious than you imagine. Each local church is a reflection of the leadership, good or bad. You cannot provide for others what you do not possess yourself. You may be able to impress the masses for a while, but ultimately, there is no discontinuity between what you are and what you do (Luke 6:45); thus, what you are will affect those around you.
Suppose a large sample size of the church is not appropriately cared for. It could be that the growth happened because of the preaching. Great! Now, what’s the plan to care for those you have drawn in through fantastic preaching? Is there a plan to care for these sheep? Perhaps there needs to be a deeper conversation within the leadership about their personal, marital, and familial practices of sanctification, as well as how they are exporting those practices to the sheep God has called them to shepherd. This perspective is a similar conversation with parents who bring rebellious children to me for counseling. It is rare for a teen to be so messed up and confused without negative shaping influences from the parents. There can be exceptions to this, but they are exceptions only, not the norm.
Who we are directly impacts our spheres of influence, and if our churches are not doing well in sanctification, the first thing to address is not more programs or small group initiatives. The wiser move would be to look at the leadership to assess their personal lives, marriages, and families. I’m not suggesting their families are walking with God because God grants repentance, not the leader. However, you want to discern a leader’s sanctification competence. Are the pastors vulnerable, transparent, honest, and accountable with their lives and marriages? Are the pastors and wives mutually and reciprocally discipling each other? Are they able to walk each other through their relational problems? There are other reasons a church does not do soul care well, but you must not avoid the leadership’s sanctification responsibilities and practices.
You go to your doctor because you believe they can help you. You go to your mechanic because you trust he can diagnose and repair your vehicle. You go to your dentist because you have faith that he will be able to preserve your teeth. Are your pastors and their wives authentically pursuing a sanctified life together? How do you know? Can your pastors walk you through your relational and situational challenges? Who do you call when things go wrong in your life or relationships? Are you confident your church can provide what you need to mature in your sanctification?
When your life takes a turn you did not anticipate, and your heart breaks, is your church your sanctification center of choice? If you are not calling on your pastors (or the contexts and the means they provide) to walk you through your problems, you must reconsider why you attend that church. I have spoken to many Christians about these matters. One of the most common responses they share is their church’s weakness in doing soul care. I understand their dilemma, and if it is true for you, here are some suggestions for your consideration.
I ignorantly told my pastor if anyone came to him with a problem and he did not know how to help, let me know. I suppose it was a good thought, but I had no clue how to help anyone, especially myself. My response to him set me on a course to learn how to do more than lead someone to Christ. You can do it too. You do not have to be church-dependent. If your church is not going to change or does not know how to change, you change yourself and then become a means of grace to assist your church.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).