What good is it to construct a larger church building when those in the existing structure are falling apart? What good is a lively capital campaign if church communion is stale? What good is continual church growth if current church health is in decline? Why are we interested in building larger models or our not-so-effective churches? Too often, while we properly focus on winning the world for Christ, we sadly neglect the ones already won by the Spirit. Too often, while properly encouraging our lost neighbors to accept the peace of Christ, we neglect our found brothers not enjoying Christ’s peace. Sadly, too often, while properly seeking to build and enlarge Christ’s institutions, we actively and passively harm our brothers and sisters.
Friends, may this not be the case. Let us strive with all our might to expand the kingdom, transform the city, address the culture, win the lost, grow existing churches, and plant new ones. However, at the same time, let us focus every bit as much on church health as we do church growth. As we labor externally for the cause of Christ, let us labor internally to better shepherd his flock.
So with this thought in mind, let us see how Nehemiah addressed the church health problem in his church growth initiative:
Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.” There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” And there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.” I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised. (Nehemiah 5:1-13)
From an external perspective, Nehemiah’s church plant looked fairly sharp. It had a solid leader, a unified leadership team, and an agreed upon vision. In addition, Nehemiah’s church had an organized work force. “Every member was a minister” for “the people had a mind to work.” Consequently, walls were being erected at a record pace, and the watching world was taking notice. From an external perspective, all was sharp.
However, once inside the walls, one saw a different picture. Food was in short supply, and the food which was available was very expensive. Some were really struggling to feed their families. But not all were struggling, some were profiting. The wealthy self-serving profiteers within the walls began to loan money at extremely high interest rates. Then they required their hungry brothers and sisters to mortgage their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses. Some were even so poor, depleted, hungry, and desperate that they mortgaged their own sons and daughters as indentured slaves.
Needless to say, soon the anger and desperation of the congregation was expressed; morale was lost and disunity found. In the city of peace there was no peace, and as the walls were getting higher, so too were the wails. From within the church a “great outcry” was heard from the membership, and it was not directed not against their pagan opponents outside the gates but against their own Jewish fathers and brothers.
When Nehemiah heard this “great outcry,”and experienced a flood of emotions. He became indignant. He became angry. He became incensed at the lack of compassion found within his church. For a short time he took counsel with himself and his Lord. Then, with fervor he went to address his fellow nobles, officials, and elders. Face to face he went at them, exposing their sin and demanding repentance. Then, after addressing his session, he called a halt to the grand building project and called a congregational meeting. It was during this meeting that Nehemiah preached another three point sermon:
- Your lack of compassion is killing your brothers and sisters.
- Your lack of compassion is harming your worship; you ought to better fear the Lord.
- Your lack of compassion is hindering your evangelism; you are being mocked by those in the world.
Nehemiah then led in repentance. Personally he pledged to share his abundance with his fellow church members. He then encouraged all others within the gates to follow after his model. As far as Nehemiah was concerned, church growth could not, should not, and would not carry one without the leaders and members sincerely addressing their church health issues. And as a result of Nehemiah’s revival, greater love was expressed. Renewed peace was enjoyed. Increased unity resulted. Greater efficiency must have been realized, and worship was improved. God was made happier, and so too were his children.
Friends, Jesus expects us to love all our neighbors, but especially those in the household of faith. We are to share one another’s burdens and show forth the compassion of Christ. In the Old Testament, divine legislation is presented to Moses regarding how the Israelites are to care for the israelites. In the New Testament, beautiful church fellowship is presented early on. Believers such as Barnabas are driven to express their love for Christ by meeting the needs of their brothers and sisters. Then later, in Acts 6, when dysfunction and disorder develops, special officers are ordained by the Spirit and the church to assist the membership in meeting the needs of one another. And this is not a unique situation; consider the admonition of the Apostle John:
1 John 3:16-18 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
1 John 4:20–21 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
Therefore friends, as we seek to grow our churches, advance our programs, build our buildings, pursue excellence, and promote Christ in the city, may our local churches be as beautiful on the inside as we posture ourselves on the outside. within our walls, may there not be one fellow member who lacks:
- Health Care
- And other temporal needs.
In addition, may there not be one of our brothers and sisters deprived of:
- Prayer Support
- And other spiritual needs.
Church, let us shine our light well to the watching world, and when they enter our buildings and get to know us better, may they not find darkness, despair, disunity, and damaged worshipers within our walls. May they look at the church, marvel at the steeple, open the doors, and see well-loved and well-nourished people.