Risk Management: Making Your Church a Safe Place to Worship and Serve

While I was in college, a youth minister asked me to “fill in” for him and host a party for the students at his church. One of the games involved “bobbing” for apples. As the evening unfolded, students were laughing and playing hard, until one student opened his mouth too wide to grab an apple out of the water—and his jaw locked open. Rushed to a nearby emergency room, the student was finally able to get his mouth closed. Although we were able to laugh about it later, at the time it was a frightening experience for the student and everyone around him.

Years later I was working on a policy for a growing congregation that would govern the use of the church facilities by outside groups during the week. Several business leaders and an attorney in the church did not want to adopt or implement such a policy. They were not opposed to evangelism, especially since the church was actively reaching unchurched individuals and families. They were deeply concerned about the potential exposure of the church to legal risks and liability to participants during events that were not being officially sponsored by the church. Their solution was to eliminate the risk by barring use of church property by outside groups.

Both of these stories illustrate two extreme responses to the subject of church liability or risk management. The youth minister I assisted was unaware and unconcerned for the risks associated with holding a youth event at the church, even if the injury that occurred was unusual or rare. Fortunately, no legal action followed. In the second example, the leadership exhibited a level of concern over the church’s liability that affected the ministry of the church within the local community. What both churches needed to do was develop and implement a liability strategy for managing risks.

What is Risk Management?

Risk management describes the effort to ensure the safety and well-being of individuals, groups, and property for whom the church is legally responsible. A “risk” represents that aspect of church-related participation, employment, volunteer service, properties, or activities that have the potential to create a moral or financial loss to the church. The process of risk management involves the identification of risks and the intentional effort to reduce those risks.

The Danger of Ignorance and Neglect

In the absence of risk management, the church as an organization could face serious financial and legal liability. If a lawsuit is filed against the church, the legal costs associated with hiring an attorney, paying court costs, and discharging a jury-awarded financial settlement can quickly outstrip the resources of a church. Litigation has increased dramatically in recent years, with the sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church being the most heavily publicized. Your church has no immunity from similar legal challenges; anyone can sue your church.

Without a risk management strategy, your church’s mission and witness is in danger of being damaged. The church is on a mission to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a lost and watching world. Negative reports arising from the ignorance or neglect of easily identified risks will damage a church’s reputation and evangelistic impact. A single failure to conduct a criminal background check of a volunteer worker leading to the molestation of a small child can damage a church’s ability to reach families for years.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd who takes care of the sheep. In His care, the sheep are protected against thieves, robbers, and wolves who come “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy’ (John 10:10)—a clear form of risk management to minimize danger to the flock. Pastors and church leaders should exhibit a similar vigilance for the spiritual and physical well-being of their human “flock” entrusted to their care. A failure to manage the risks that could affect the church is more than an act of ignorance: it is a dereliction of duty associated with the pastoral task.

A Strategy for Managing Risk in the Local Church

Risk management is a process of identifying the risks and then determining the best way to handle those risks in a moral and legally-responsible manner. It is a genuine and intentional effort to care for the people, assets and property associated with the church as an organization, preventing all forms of injury and loss. Due to the sheer number of possibilities and dynamic nature of risks that threaten a church, the process of risk management never ends. How can a church develop an effective and workable strategy for managing risk?

Assign responsibility. Whether it is a staff member or a ministry team, someone in the church needs to take the lead in developing the strategy. The church should make a clear assignment of responsibility and empower that person or group with sufficient authority to recommend changes or make decisions addressing safety concerns, inadequate insurance coverage, or church policies. Although the responsibility may be rotated periodically, the function and activity of risk management should have a permanent place in the leadership structure of the church.

Conduct a periodic risk assessment. The risk management leadership should thoroughly identify all risks. The survey of known risks should include a review of existing insurance coverage, potentially hazardous or unsafe conditions on the church property, church policies and practices concerning employees and volunteers, and financial policies and procedures (see below a sample list in the section “A List of Twenty Actions to Ensure Safety and Reduce Liability”). The survey should be repeated on a periodic basis to identify new risks that may surface due to changes in the condition of the property, legal requirements, community environment, or direction in ministry. Risk management leadership can create a series of checklists to facilitate a routine risk assessment.

Determine how each risk will be managed. Risk management leadership needs to evaluate each of the identified risks for potential impact on the church. Motivated by pastoral and organizational concern to protect the church, risk management leadership can choose from four basic options to manage an identified risk.

  1. Avoid the risk. Risk management leadership can decide to eliminate the condition or activity that creates the risk. Leadership could cancel a ski trip, the use of the property by an outside group, or the use of church vehicles in an effort to eliminate risk.
  2. Share the risk. Risk management leadership can require individuals or groups to show proof of insurance before participating in a church-related event or using church property. In effect, the risk is “shared” between the church and the insurance company.
  3. Transfer the risk. Risk management leadership can purchase various forms of church insurance to cover the risk. Provided the coverage is sufficient, the insurance company assumes liability for the risk.
  4. Reduce the risk. Risk management leadership can minimize the risk through proactive actions including property improvements and changes in church policies and procedures. Often referred to as loss prevention, the goal is to reduce the likelihood of a risk creating a hazard or liability for the church (e.g., replacing lights in a darkened hallway). Loss control is the effort to minimize the damage caused by a risk. An example of loss control would be the development of a strategy for correctly handling an accusation of child molestation against a church employee or volunteer in a timely manner.

Gather resources. The risk management leadership in the church should stay well-informed and updated on the subject of risk management. The leadership should purchase and review books, periodicals, and multimedia resources addressing various topics in risk management. The single best resource the church has is their insurance provider.  Most insurance companies can provide the church with risk management materials and guides to assist in the development of a risk management strategy. In many cases, the insurance company will send an agent to help conduct an inspection of the church property for hazards and unsafe conditions.

Document and record all decisions and activities. The risk management strategy can be called many things (e.g., church safety and liability plan) but it should be documented and made available to the church. More than a document sitting in a file folder at the church, the risk management strategy should be carefully implemented. The risk management team should also review and update the strategy on a periodic basis to keep it current.

A List of Twenty Actions to Ensure Safety and Reduce Liability 

  1. Assign the responsibility for risk management to a staff member or ministry team. Unless someone owns the responsibility to administer risk management, it will not receive the level of attention that is needed to develop an adequate church liability strategy. The leadership should make every effort to identify all risks and determine how to manage each risk to reduce or eliminate its potential impact on the church.
  2. Evaluate the insurance coverage of the church to determine whether all insurable risks are adequately covered. The church cannot afford to be underinsured against a costly legal obligation stemming from an uninsured risk. The risk management leadership should review and seek to understand the existing insurance coverage of the church, enlisting the aid of their insurance agent. Church insurance should include six categories of coverage: property, liability, workers compensation, employers liability, automobile, and excess or umbrella insurance.
  3. Perform an inspection of the church buildings and grounds for unsafe or hazardous conditions. Church members and guests should not be exposed to the risk of injury or harm due to the poor condition of church property (e.g., faulty equipment, inadequate lighting, or slick floors). The risk management leadership should conduct a safety and security inspection of their facility and grounds, identifying risks and hazards that need to be corrected or repaired. Inspection considerations and/or checklists can usually be secured from the church’s insurance carrier or downloaded from a credible internet source such as the GuideOne Center for Risk Management or Guidestone’s Safety Toolkit.
  4. Control access to facilities, church equipment, and material resources. The risk management leadership should set policies governing the access to and use of church property. Buildings, offices, and equipment storage should be locked when not in use and key distribution should be limited to avoid theft or unauthorized activities. The church should develop policies concerning the usage of church property by church members or non-members.
  5. Review the procedures for the collection and handling of offerings. Church members participating in the collection of offerings are vulnerable to accusations of theft or embezzlement. The risk management leadership should carefully review how money is handled during the weekly Sunday collection. They may also want to consider contracting with an accounting firm to conduct a procedural audit of the collection process, recommending changes or improvements to the way offerings are handled on a weekly basis. At least two, unrelated adults should oversee the process from the moment of collection until the funds are safely deposited into the bank or church safe. No one should ever take the offerings home for safekeeping or counting. A team of individuals should count the funds in a room where all cash, checks, and envelopes will remain in sight of the entire team. All counts should be double-checked and documented on a signed form listing all currency and checks prior to completing the bank deposit slip. Counting team members should be rotated on a regular basis.
  6. Provide training for the church treasurer and finance committee regarding the IRS rules governing charitable contributions. Not all contributions are tax deductible. If the church provides written substantiation of a gift that does not meet the established criteria of a tax deduction, the donor could be subject to costly penalties. Established in Internal Revenue Service Publication 526 (http://www.irs.gov/publications/p526/index.html), charitable contributions must meet an established set of criteria in order to be tax deductible. Church treasurers need to be familiar with these rules in order to advise donors and assist them in providing written substantiation of their gifts to the church.
  7. Provide training for the church treasurer and finance committee regarding employment tax requirements of the church as an employer. Churches need to ensure that all required forms, documentation, and payments associated with an employee’s taxes are being completed and filed in a timely manner. In addition, the church should be well informed concerning the use of housing allowances by ordained clergy, the value of an accountable reimbursement plan to manage professional expenses, and the proper administration of withholding taxes.
  8. Review non-exempt employee work hours to ensure compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting all church employees. Churches must provide overtime pay for employees who are not exempt from overtime requirements under the FLSA (e.g., church secretaries and custodial staff).
  9. Develop a standard interview form, employment application, and comprehensive process for use when hiring church employees. Supervisors and personnel committees involved in the hire or termination of employees need to be aware of the legal standards placed upon employers. Certain questions may not be asked during an interview or requested on a job application. Interview forms and hiring/termination procedures should be developed in consultation with the counsel of a qualified human resource manager or an attorney.
  10. Ensure compliance with new hire reporting and immigration laws. Every state requires employers to report all new hires as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The reports are used primarily for tracking parents who owe back child support and for reducing fraud under various social programs, including unemployment benefits. In addition, all employers are required to have new employees complete an Employment Eligibility Form I-9 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The forms are to be kept on file and maintained by the employer. Severe fines and penalties can be applied to the church that fails to comply with these non-IRS documentation requirements.
  11. Display all required state and federal employee notices for employees. Employers are required to post notices from a variety of federal and state agencies in locations that are accessible and visible to all employees. Failure to post the required notices can result in significant fines and penalties. Although there are human resource suppliers willing to sell the posters to the church, all of the required notices can be obtained without cost through the websites and offices of the U. S. Department of Labor and the labor department of the state in which the church is located.
  12. Safeguard church financial, membership, and employment records. Church vital records should be protected from unauthorized access or loss. Fireproof safes and file cabinets should be used for hard copies of documents. Offsite and redundant storage should be used to backup all digital records. The risk management leadership should develop a records retention policy governing what records should be preserved and for what duration.
  13. Develop a policy and process for screening employees and volunteers for past criminal behavior. Criminal background checks should be required for all staff and volunteers who work with children and youth. In addition, references concerning past employment or volunteer service should be checked thoroughly.
  14. Establish a church policy to reduce risks associated with mission trips. With the growing popularity of church mission trips, a number of risks ranging from accidental injury to unforeseen natural disasters can occur. The church should have an adequate policy in place that requires participants to acquire “out of the country” health and accident insurance and to adequately inform participants of the hazards associated with the trip.
  15. Train ushers and greeters to be security-conscious and prepared to respond to emergencies associated with a medical need, accidents, potential intruders, or natural disasters. Churches are vulnerable to a variety of unforeseen emergency conditions on Sundays when the most people are on campus and the church is most accessible to the general public. Ushers and greeters should be properly trained and prepared to respond to emergency conditions as they arise. They should also be alert to unsafe conditions or hazards in and around the church buildings.
  16. Establish policies to ensure adequate and proper supervision of youth and children during all church activities and events. Churches are susceptible to charges of improper or inadequate supervision should a child be abused or injured as part of a church sponsored activity or event. Employees and workers should be required to submit to a criminal background check prior to enlistment or employment by the church to supervise children. Many states and municipalities have specified the minimum ratio of workers to participants when working with minors.
  17. Develop procedures for handling accusations of criminal or sexual misconduct against a staff member or church member. Unfounded accusations can severely damage the reputation of a wrongly accused church member or employee. At the same time, accusations must be handled with a serious and deliberate response in order to protect the alleged victim(s) of criminal or sexual misconduct. Until guilt or innocence is established, the church must act to protect all parties involved with responsible action.
  18. Define an emergency response and communication plan to be implemented when actual criminal or sexual misconduct is discovered. Churches that are slow to react or uncertain in their response can easily mishandle and exacerbate an already difficult situation for affected families and church members.
  19. Develop a policy and a strategy for the conduct of pastoral counseling. Pastors and staff face a degree of risk whenever they respond to requests for counseling from church members or non-members of the church. Best practices should be established and observed to ensure that counseling is conducted in a manner that protects the minister and the client. Clients should be required to read and sign an agreement clarifying the limits and extent of the counseling services being provided by the church. Specifically, the policy and the client agreement should clarify the limits of clergy-penitent privilege, as well as the parameters of confidentiality. Pastors and church leaders should be aware of the mandatory reporting laws in their state mandating they report certain crimes, including the suspected abuse of a minor or senior adult.
  20. Review, update, and observe the guiding documents of the church. The guiding documents of a church may include the articles of incorporation, a constitution, and a set of bylaws. If a church fails to observe the requirements of their guiding documents, particularly as they apply to the conduct of business and decision making, the church may be subject to legal challenges from members.

Weathering the Storms of Life – A Way to Minister to Your Community in Hurricane-Prone Regions

One night on a routine visit in a home, I asked a recent guest in our service “How did you decide to come visit our church?

It was the magnet on the refrigerator,” she said. Immediately, I was moved beyond words. I never imagined the magnet would be a divine tool for life change!

In the pre-Katrina and pre-Rita years of the mid-90s, the First Baptist Church of Lake Charles, Louisiana set out to minister to our community with a hurricane preparedness campaign. Armed with a desire to saturate the city and surrounding communities with a basic introduction to Jesus Christ, the staff and members worked together to distribute packets of free materials on the opening weekend of hurricane season.

Located 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Charles is nestled among the bayous and wetlands of southwest Louisiana. Hurricanes are an annual, recurring threat during the summer and early fall months. During the days leading up to the official opening of hurricane season (June 1st), radio and television news anchors and newspapers are “news hungry” for events and information related to hurricane preparedness. The conditions were perfect for planning and launching an outwardly-focused ministry effort around the theme “Weathering the Storms of Life.”

The Idea

Selecting the weekend after Memorial Day (the Atlantic hurricane season opens on June 1st), teams would give away hurricane preparedness materials on Saturday and invite people to attend services on Sunday aimed at helping them “weather” the personal storms in life.

Tables loaded with packets of free materials were set up at the local mall and area shopping centers. With an educational weather video running to the side, passers-by were greeted by smiling church members handing out the packets. They were also encouraged to sign-up for a door prize displayed on the table: a large ice chest filled with hurricane preparedness items, such as canned goods, bottled water, radios, flashlights, batteries, and first aid kits. It was too tempting not to sign up, which was the idea!

When persons registered for the door prize, they had the option of indicating on the form whether they would like additional information about First Baptist Church. Persons noting interest in the church became prospective guests for follow-up through one of our adult Sunday School classes.

On Sunday a common Bible study lesson was taught throughout the adult and youth divisions based on the ministry theme “Weathering the Storms of Life.” In the worship service, the music and message were gospel-centered and focused on the hearts of guests in the congregation. In addition, a local weather personality or a hurricane survivor was invited to speak for five minutes about the importance of hurricane preparedness.

In the days following the community ministry weekend, door prizes were delivered, thank you notes were written to area store managers and volunteers, and follow-up visits were conducted in the homes of persons requesting additional contact from the church.

The Teams

Annually in mid-winter, four teams were enlisted to oversee preparations for the distribution venues, publicity efforts, packet creation, and follow-up activities. A staff pastor or volunteer served as the coordinator for the four teams, meeting with each team regularly to monitor progress and encourage the leaders in their work.

The venue team secured the locations and written permissions needed to set up distribution tables in area stores. Venue leaders enlisted volunteers and gathered the resources for each location (e.g., tables, chairs, video players).

The publicity team worked to get the word out. Preparing a news release about the event, the team sent notices to every newspaper, television and radio outlet in the area. The media treated the information either as a community event or public service announcement (PSA). Requests for interviews were common and immediately accepted! The week before the event, church members were given stacks of attractive cards to share with their neighbors and friends, inviting them to the venues and the theme service.

The packet team contacted emergency preparedness officials for literature to insert in the give-away materials. Area businesses were delighted to print and give coupons towards the purchase of recommended preparedness materials. An imprinted refrigerator magnet was created giving the church numbers, as well as the local emergency preparedness phone numbers (today, I would include URLs to their websites). On the Wednesday night prior to the event, members held a “Packet Packing Party” to stuff the hundreds of plastic bags with the materials gathered in previous months. With the addition of refreshments and music, everyone had a blast!

In later years, the packet was abandoned in favor of a “news magazine”. Drawing on business leaders who would pay for small advertisements in the paper, the tabloid contained the same hurricane preparedness information, as well as articles from church staff about ways in which First Baptist Church could help someone weather the “storms” of life. The advantage to this approach was a greater distribution of materials at a much lower cost. In fact, the ads eventually paid for the entire outreach event. It cost the church nothing!

The follow-up team made sure that every door prize registrant and venue volunteer received a note of appreciation from the church and that all door prizes were delivered in person. Working through the existing outreach leaders in the Sunday School, the goal was that 100% of the persons indicating interest in learning more about the church would be contacted within the first week following the event. It was a critical and rewarding task.

The Harvest

Church members gave away approximately 2000 packets each year. Of the 2000 persons taking a packet, about 75% went on to register for the door prize. About 10-15% of the door prize registrants indicated an interest in learning more about the church. The resulting 275-300 prospective guests were genuinely open to contact from the church.

The impact to the church budget was minimal. Once the church began printing their own materials and selling ads, the cost was eliminated altogether.

Church members of all ages became involved in outreach and in working together. New relationships were forged as individuals worked side-by-side packing packets or giving away free materials.

The church became highly visible in the community. Relationships with local broadcasters and news personalities gave the church an open door for communicating future projects. The positive name recognition that developed was invaluable.

But the most important result of all?

Remember the Magnet?

Passing by one of the give-away tables, a young woman picked up one of the packets and went home. Not thinking much about it at the time, she placed the imprinted magnet on her refrigerator.

Months later, she and her husband were struggling with their marriage. Ready to give up, they decided to visit a church and see if God couldn’t make a difference in their home. Recalling the magnet on her refrigerator door, the wife suggested to her husband that they visit First Baptist Church. God changed their hearts and renewed their marriage!

Months later it was one of the great blessings of my ministry to visit one of the venues giving away free packets of hurricane preparedness materials. There they were. The smiling couple with a new “storm-proof” marriage was busy at work and “weathering the storms of life.”

5 Measures of Church Health

You can build a great church or you can build a great people. I’m not sure you can do both.” The older pastor looked at the neophyte steadily as the statement settled into the young minister’s thoughts. The older pastor’s point was well taken.

Recalling that experience decades later, I recognize how easy it is for church leaders and pastors to become preoccupied with what they can do to make the church grow numerically. Indeed, churches ought to be attracting and reaching people with the gospel! Church gatherings should be well conceived and led with excellence. Pastors should abhor mediocre, boring, and repetitive programming. However, in a way that they cannot quite identify or describe, many church leaders intuitively sense something is missing. The missing emphasis lies in a lack of attention on the health of the church.

Does church health matter? Although dozens of metaphors exist in the New Testament describing the church, the image most applicable to developing a philosophy of church health is a “body” or organism. In the same way a doctor assesses a human physical body, leaders can conclude that the church as the Body of Christ is either healthy or unhealthy. The New Testament writers use the word “church” (ἐκκλησία) to describe both the universal church and the local church, as well as any distribution of believers in a region. Therefore, to describe the health of a congregational “body” is to evaluate a group of people against a biblical template of what they should be and do together.

The church is one body made up of individual members, in whom the divine life of Christ dwells. As an organism, the church is the Body of Christ and he is the head (Col. 1:18). A living organism can have only one head, and the function of the head is to give direction to every individual part of the body (Eph. 1:22). In an organism, each individual part is intimately connected to the head, and the head sends and receives impulses and messages directly to it.

In a healthy church that is properly related to Jesus as the head, the body is guided by the mission and thinking of Jesus. He taught that when He is building the church, the gates of hell will fail against the forward movement of His people (Mt. 16:18). Understood in this way, the organized church is fueled by its health (or dysfunction) as a spiritual organism, an expression of a real and vital connection to Christ. Furthermore, because of this mystical union with Jesus, every church member shares a mystical, organic bond with every other member of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5).

Consequently, the spiritual health of a church is an essential prerequisite to any activity by the church. Being truly precedes doing. The life of the church as an organism will animate the church as an organization. Apart from the headship and presence of Jesus, the church of Jesus becomes a listless, human-powered organization intent on perpetuating its own existence.

Do leaders need to be concerned with church health? The word “elder” implies maturity and is the primary term used in the New Testament to identify a church leader (Acts 20:17, 28-31). Used interchangeably with the word “overseer” or the function of “oversight” (Titus 1:5-7), the “elder” provided essential leadership and teaching functions in the early church. The word “pastor” appears as a hyphenated noun with the word “teacher” in Eph. 4:11. Throughout the remainder of the New Testament, “pastor” describes the shepherding function of the “elder” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Regardless of the preferred title, elders, overseers, and pastor-teachers play at least three vital roles in fostering and maintaining the health of the church.

    • Equipping. In Paul’s description of church health in Eph. 4:11-13, leaders are equipping the saints to grow and serve together with the goal of reflecting Christ as a group. Accomplished primarily through teaching, equipping pastors seek to lead the entire church to maturity through the spiritual growth of every believer (Col. 1:28). Far more than the dissemination of information, the equipping role of the pastor fosters church health as each member of the Body becomes like Christ.
    • Protecting. Paul admonished the elders of the church in Ephesus to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock . . . after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things. . .” (Acts 20:28‑30). Shepherds protect their sheep. Church leaders must expect threats to the doctrinal and relational integrity of the church. Drawing on the resources of the Holy Spirit, leaders can take the initiative to resolve problems, to provide a calming, non-anxious presence, and to speak the truth the church needs in order to arrest destructive forces both within and outside the fellowship.
    • Modeling. In 1 Pet. 5:3, elders are to be examples to the flock. The mature character of the church leader directly affects the health of the church. This explains why the qualifications for elders and overseers focus on the character of the man, as opposed to his credentials and training (1 Tim. 3:1-12, Titus 1:5-9). Understood in this way, the qualifications for church leaders also describe the growth points for each member of the congregation. The character requirements for the pulpit are also expected in the pew!

So what should a healthy church look like?

(1) Healthy Churches Worship and Fellowship Together

Immediately following Pentecost, Luke describes the life of the early church in Acts 2:42-47:

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

The daily worship gathering of the church was a public and corporate focus on “the apostles’ doctrine.” The study of truth was central to the early Christians and served as a foundation for their shared life together (“fellowship” or κοινωνία). Mentioned twice in the passage, eating together indicated intimacy and acceptance in the ancient (and modern) Middle Eastern culture. They prayed together. They experienced a deep reverential fear, sensing and seeing God’s activity in their midst. God’s presence also generated joy and praise within the fellowship (Psalm 16:11). Outsiders liked these people. It is no wonder that new believers were coming into the church every day!

Healthy churches worship God. The form of corporate worship and fellowship may vary among cultures, but the essential elements of biblical teaching, heart-felt joy, and the presence of God will be evident.

(2) Healthy Churches Broadcast the Gospel

For churches that look to the scriptures for direction and guidance, the Great Commission statements of the New Testament clarify and define each church’s mission. In the Great Commission of Mt. 28:18-20, Jesus said,

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

The passage begins and ends with a promise. Jesus rules in the “unseen” and “seen” realms (Mt. 28:18). Jesus concludes with a promise to accompany his followers throughout their mission (Mt. 28:20). However, Matthew records only one main verb in the passage: to make disciples. The other three participles—going, baptizing, and teaching—modify and augment the primary activity of making disciples. Matthew leads the readers to understand that making disciples is the primary activity of a healthy church.

After describing how all of the secular and irreligious people were coming to hear Jesus, Luke records how Jesus responded to the resulting criticism from religious leaders. Jesus justified his socializing with “the wrong people” by telling this story: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (Lk. 15:4). Jesus is clearly interested in and concerned about every single lost person.

In Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). The church is charged to take the gospel to every man, woman, boy, and girl in their sphere of influence. Jesus is calling the church to saturate their world with the gospel. The early church appears to have understood and practiced saturation evangelism. Jewish authorities accused the apostles of having “filled Jerusalem” with the gospel message (Acts 5:28). Similarly, Paul spread the gospel for two years with the result that “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Legitimate evangelism seeks to eliminate lostness by saturating the world with the gospel.

In its most basic form, evangelism is the sharing of “good news.” Through the delivery and explanation of the content of the gospel, the church “evangelizes” the world, regardless of the response from the hearers. Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). When a disciple delivers the “message of the cross,” he or she is doing evangelism. Some people listening to the gospel message will be changed—others will reject it.

In Acts, Luke summarizes the “success” of the young church in terms of people being baptized and “added” to the church (e.g., Acts 2:41, 2:47 and 5:14). Paul was deeply burdened and desperate over the lostness of an entire generation of Jews (Rom. 9:3). Taken with God’s passionate pursuit of lost souls described in three different parables in Luke 15, the presence of new Christians in a church becomes a clear sign of health. The absence of a steady flow of new Christians should be a cause for concern and deep grief, generating a call to prayer for God’s renewing presence and power.

(3) Healthy Churches Seek the Presence of God

Everything in the church rises and falls on the presence of God. In his book God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (1994), Gordon Fee argues that the entire corpus of Paul’s teaching cannot be properly understood apart from his constant reliance upon and experience of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible, God’s presence is the leading indicator of the spiritual health of the people of God. For example, Moses refuses to advance to the Promised Land apart from the accompanying presence of God (Ex. 33:15). Jesus directed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “clothed” with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49). Markers of God’s presence in the Bible include a sense of awe (Rev. 1:17), a sense of his love (Eph. 3:17-19), a crushing awareness of personal sin (Isa. 6:1-5), and a deep desire to confess sin and make things right with others (Luke 3:8-14). Throughout the book of Acts, the church carried reports of God’s activity to one another (Acts 11:18).

The healthy church understands that the Holy Spirit is essential to their work. The earliest disciples understood that the accomplishment of their mission was dependent on the activity of the Holy Spirit. He represents and communicates the presence of God to his people. Jesus described the impact that the Holy Spirit’s arrival would have on the disciples following Pentecost: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The influence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life was an obvious and observable quality (Acts 6:3). The enabling power of the Spirit added a supernatural effectiveness to the witness of the disciples (Acts 6:10). More significantly, the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples. Comprehending and obeying what the Spirit “said,” Philip witnessed to a man in the wilderness (Acts 8:29), Peter carried the gospel across racial lines (Acts 10:19), church leaders launched a new mission (Acts 13:2), and Paul took the gospel into Europe for the first time (Acts 16:6-7).

The Holy Spirit is essential for individual transformation too. Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The flow of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of any heart begins when someone accepts and trusts the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates the heart (Psalm 51:10-11). The only hope for individual or corporate change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of the heart (Philippians 2:12-13).

(4) Healthy Churches Make Christlike Disciples

In Matthew’s expression of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20), Jesus commanded the remaining eleven disciples to “make disciples of all the nations.” A healthy church makes disciples—but what is a disciple? When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus, it means that this person was not always a disciple. A life was changed and a disciple was “made.” The concept of making a disciple suggests a process that is spiritual, intentional, and relational.

Healthy churches have developed clear responses to three questions:

    • What is a disciple? (Meaning)
    • How do we make them? (Method)
    • How do we know when we have made them? (Metric)

The essence of discipleship is “follow-ship.” Just as men and women followed Jesus during his earthly tenure on earth, disciples today need to envision themselves as following a living Jesus who goes before them every day. To follow Jesus is to embrace his mission and reflect his life—to live as he lived (1 Jn. 2:6). To follow Jesus is to experience personal transformation into his likeness, and that transformation occurs through his active presence in the believer’s life. Consider these examples:

    • Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)
    • that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… (Eph. 3:17)
    • Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Cor. 13:5)
    • it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me… (Gal. 2:20)
    • My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you… (Gal. 4:19)

What does a church look like when Christ is being “formed” in the hearts of his people? Paul measured success in a church by the presence of faith, hope, and love (e.g., 2 Th. 1:2-3; Eph. 1:15-16; and Col. 1:3-5). Reflecting transformed lives and healthy relationships within the church, Paul looked for these inward qualities in the form of consistent, observable behaviors and attitudes. Paul understood that character “bubbles” come to the surface of a person’s life as a result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling (Gal. 5:22-23). Yielding to the inner prompting and gentle pressure of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16), individuals collectively reveal the activity of God within a church by the way they treat one another (John 13:35). Not only does Paul rejoice as the gospel advances, but he is delighted when the church reflects the life and character of Jesus Christ (1 Th. 1:2-3).

(5) Healthy Churches Demonstrate Love for One Another and the World

Jesus exhibited great compassion for people (Mt. 9:36-38). Healthy churches understand that Christ-followers will demonstrate his compassion to others as well, sharing his heart for a broken and lost world. If his heart is “moved with compassion,” how can the heart of the church beat in any other way? Christ’s love extends beyond the church to the world. The consequence of an intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus is that the disciple begins to share Jesus’ concern. He will lead his disciples to care about the spiritual condition and well-being of every person that they meet. Like Paul and Moses (Rom. 9:3; Ex. 32:32), the disciple of Jesus will experience a burden for hurting and lost souls—a visceral response to human need. Over time, the thoughts and actions of the disciple will begin to align with the heart of Jesus. This is equally true within the church. Love for other believers is expressed in many different reciprocal behaviors—also known as the “one another” commands of the New Testament.

How does a church overcome its relational deficits and dysfunctions? Love is the key. For example, love that heals relationships appears in the way members are “extending grace to one another” (Rom. 15:7) In 1 Th. 2:3, Paul refers to the Thessalonians’ “labor of love.” Healthy churches are populated by people who are prepared to work—to exert themselves even when it hurts—in order to love others within the Body. Healthy churches are loving churches.

How can you use these metrics to open up a discussion in your church about church health? Taking them one at a time, consider leading 5-6 sessions in an informal setting, allowing plenty of time for participants to discuss and pose questions (e.g., How healthy are we in this area? Does the Lord have a way forward for us? What is the next step? What will we pray and trust Him to do? What are we willing to do? etc.).

Dethrone the “Odds” in Your Life

Too many times we make little gods out of “the odds” associated with the twists and turns of our life’s journey. We bow down to the odds, allowing them to shape and govern our hearts, giving the idols of chance the first hearing as we process major decisions.

But there is a sovereign God who rules over the odds. He has a plan for your life that is most affected — not by chance — but by your love and devotion to Him. Listen to this verse from Romans 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

God is at work extracting good from everything that happens to the ones who love Him. No matter the odds, the outcome is assured by a God who always wins. This same one true God sent His Son on a rescue mission to save us from the enemies of our souls.

Dying on the cross in our place, He removed the penalty for our sins by paying the ultimate price. (John 3:16; 1 Peter 2:24) That’s His love for me and you… and He requires nothing less in return than complete surrender of our lives into His hands. (Romans 10:9-10) In this way, the odds are dethroned and you are guaranteed ultimate joy no matter the outcome of your present contest. It’s not chance that determines your destiny… it’s you deciding whether to place the directional control of your life in His hands.

It’s not about the odds. It’s about the one true God.

Insight: Casper ten Boom on Suffering for Him

Casper ten Boom (1859-1944)

Casper ten Boom (1859-1944), Corrie ten Boom’s father, was a Dutch storekeeper who helped to hide Jews escaping the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. A member of the Dutch Reformed Church, he was in his eighties when Germany occupied his hometown of qHaarlem in The Netherlands. When Jews were forced to wear the Star of David on their clothing as a way of marking them for increasing levels of abuse and persecution, Casper chose to wear it also, as a way of identifying with his Jewish neighbors. He was arrested with his family during a Gestapo raid on their home, and died shortly after his imprisonment on March 9, 1944.

In this account shared by his grandson Peter, Corrie’s father is remembered for his last recorded words.

The long hours crept by slowly as we stood there facing the yellow brick wall. My heart was full of questions. I kept thinking of the Psalm which Grandfather had read the evening before. After our imprisonment we had been taken to the police station at Haarlem. In the gymnasium there, with thirty other prisoners lying and sitting on the floor around him, Grandfather had taken his Bible and read the Ninety-first Psalm. How peaceful those words had sounded to our anxious souls: ‘He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him will I trust.”

But now, standing in the corridor of Scheveningen prison, doubt filled my heart. “A thousand shall fall at thy side,” Grandfather had read, “and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.”

But tragedy had struck. Where was the host of angels we had prayed for so often? Had God forgotten us? Then I glanced over at Grandfather sitting in the corner. There was such an expression of peace on his pale face that I could not help marveling. He actually was protected. God had built a fence around him. Suddenly I knew: The everlasting arms are around all of us. God does not make mistakes. He is at the controls.

At last they took me to my cell. As I walked past Grandfather, I stopped, bent over him, and kissed him goodbye. He looked up at me and said, “My boy, are we not a privileged generation?”

Those were his last words to me.

Source: Corrie Ten Boom, Father Ten Boom (Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1973), 10-11.

The Walk

1. It is waiting on the Lord who renews and sustains me (Psalm 103:5, Isaiah 40:31).

2. It is a walk He sustains (Psalm. 63:8).

3. It is a walk that originated in the Garden and was damaged and destroyed by sin. Man no longer naturally longs to walk with God. Man would rather wander from God than walk with God (Genesis 3:8-9).

4. It is a walk of faith — looking beyond this existence to another (2 Corinthians 5:7, Colossians 3:1).

5. It is a walk that prefigures my walk in eternity (Revelation 3:4).

6. It is a walk of humility required by God (Micah 6:8).

7. It is a walk of deliverance, conditioned by readiness to maintain daily, practical holiness – avoiding all things unclean and impure and offensive to Him (Deuteronomy 23:9,14; Romans 8:1)

8. It is a walk in His Spirit characterized by (a) His leadership and (b) His fruit (Galatians 5:16-18, 22-23).

9. It is a walk of co-crucifixion – my flesh with its passions and desires have been crucified (Galatians 5:24-25).

10. It is a walk of harmony with the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:25 “keep in step with”).

11. It is a walk of following Jesus – who will give me a desire and ability to fish for the souls of men (Matthew 4:19).

12. It is a walk of love resulting in His continuous presence with me (John 14:23; 2 John 1:6, Ephesians 5:2, Romans 14:15).

13. It is a walk of intimate communion – abiding (John 15:4, 1 John 1:6-7).

Known and Loved

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ~ Romans 5:8

When He died
I did not exist
except in His mind.

I was just another unborn sinner with a lifetime of future offenses
but I was known
He knew this lost and broken soul.

And He was ready to forgive my sins before I had done any of them
on the morning I first drew breath
before I felt the dark stains in my soul.

His is an ancient readiness to forgive.

Because He loves someone like me
and you.

Alone with Him

When we realize that God is not some faraway distant and disinterested deity…

When we learn that He invites us to draw near on a pathway blazed by His Son…

When we discover that He made us to be satisfied only by continuously and deeply drinking from the life He alone can provide…

When we see the world around us as it is: hungry and thirsty souls frantically trying to fill the gnawing void with an empty “feast,” dark, deluded, and damaged…

When we sense His heart to make all things new…

When we glimpse the King and fall down before Him…

Then being alone with Him becomes…

  • a place of refuge;
  • a time of refreshing;
  • a vision of what is real;
  • a reminder of what matters;
  • a release from hopelessness;
  • a moment of weightlessness as you unburden your soul;
  • a way to discern and ask for His kingly rule to break into broken lives and circumstances;
  • a delightful time with the One who rescues you;
  • a journey to ever-increasing levels of surrender to His love and stunning purposes for your life; and
  • a mission to bring joy to the One who sings over you!


not a goal, but a result…

not for religious professionals, but for His sons & daughters…

not for gaining public attention, but for a divine audience…

not for my reputation, but for my sanity…

not a terminal destination, but a highway…

not where I am going, but how…

not a decoration on display, but the byproduct of an all-consuming pursuit…

not a hard-won achievement by me, but an extravagant gift from Him…

lost when I trade it away for lesser things…

a path recovered as I confess and He cleans…

a choice to walk in His light and not in my shame…

a life expressed (His) when I come to Him, learn from Him, and remain in Him…

absolutely essential…

accompanying every serious pilgrimage into the Presence of the One I love.

“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart… the generation of those who seek Him, who seek Your face.” ~ Psalm 24:3-4, 6

“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands… and purify your hearts…” ~ James 4:8

“…Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory…” ~ 1 Peter 1:7-8

(May we be the generation He seeks… the one that seeks Him, drawing near with clean hands & a pure heart.)

Experiencing Easter

As the sun rises on this Easter morning, believers around the world are gathering to worship the One who completely defeated death (and every other enemy of the human soul). Sermons are being preached describing the biblical accounts of a risen Jesus. Each story is an eyewitness testimony of an encounter with a no-longer-dead man… the women outside His tomb, the men on the road to Emmaus, and the hundreds of disciples who saw Him before His ascension… people who experienced Easter!

But there’s another individual story – rarely mentioned at Easter – about an obsessed, bloodthirsty religionist who met a risen Jesus. His name was Saul (later known as Paul). In one of his later writings he lists the other Easter appearances, and then points out that “last of all… He also appeared to me” (1 Corinthians 15:8). Here is his story found in Acts 9…

Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (1-5)

. . . So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (6)

. . . And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (9)

. . . Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. (20-21)

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine you are Saul. Blind. No longer able to see. Unable to do anything except reflect on what just happened. What conclusions would you be making over those three days?

Although Saul could not see with his eyes, he was still “seeing” – arriving at multiple conclusions that changed his life forever. What did he see?

Jesus knows me. As Saul was sitting there in the dark, not eating or drinking, he recalls how that day began. Closing in on Damascus, his purpose was to round up anyone associated with “the Way,” tracking and hunting them down. He hated them. He wanted to end their lives and their obnoxious teachings. He was breathing an atmosphere of “threats and murder.”

And then the light came… and that voice calling his name, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Sitting there in the dark, Saul realized that the voice – the One who said He was Jesus – knew who he was! Knew what Saul was doing out there on that road. Knew what he had done in the past. Knew everything that was in his heart.

Have you “seen” that Jesus knows you too? Is He calling your name too?

Jesus comes after me. Saul wasn’t looking for a sign from God – he already knew the truth. Jesus was a heretic and a fraud. There were no second thoughts rolling around in Saul’s mind. He was thoroughly convinced that he was right. Saul was not looking for Jesus. But Jesus had come after him!

Did Saul know that Jesus had once taught that “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10)? We can’t know for sure. But sitting there in the dark, Saul understood that Jesus had seized the initiative. Jesus made the first move. Jesus pursued Saul at a moment when Saul could not have cared less.

Jesus pursues a relationship with you. Have you “seen” this?

Jesus is Lord. Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. And then the Voice replied, “I am Jesus.” Whoever was speaking to Saul from that blinding light had to be Lord! Sitting in the dark, Saul was forced to revise his entire understanding of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was not only alive after being dead, but He spoke with absolute authority. Everything Jesus taught to His disciples suddenly mattered. Everything Jesus did needed to be examined again. Nothing about Him could be dismissed.

Writing to a young pastor years later as Paul the apostle, Saul described Jesus as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light [and Saul knew about that blinding light, didn’t he?], whom none of mankind has seen or can see, to whom be honor and eternal might” (1 Timothy 6:15-16). Among those phrases Paul calls Jesus “the Lord of lords” – that name first uttered on the road to Damascus.

Saul concluded that if Jesus is Lord, there is nothing and no one greater who can be lord! Not sin or death or any problem or disease… Jesus is Lord over everything that would be “lord” over us! Jesus is the deliverer out of Satan’s kingdom, away from God’s wrath, and into God’s kingdom. His death on the cross was not the cruel end of an imposter Messiah – He was the real thing!

On regaining his physical sight, Saul had to share what he has seen! Luke writes that “immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.” Saul had a new mission and a powerful message.

Have you “seen” this truth? Everything changes when you know that Jesus is the Lord of lords.

Jesus is intimately connected with His followers. Sitting in the dark, Saul kept turning over in his mind the words of Jesus. The insights surfacing in his heart were stunning. Perhaps none more so than when Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Saul had never seen Jesus, but he had seen many of His followers. He tied them up. He dragged them back to Jerusalem. He was doing everything within his power to destroy the people of the Way.

But Jesus said that Saul had been doing all these horrific things to HIM. Arresting HIM. Beating HIM. Terrorizing HIM. Killing HIM. How was that possible?

It was in that moment that Saul realized that the relationship Jesus has with each of His followers is different from any other in creation. “Why are you persecuting Me?” is much more than compassionate rhetoric about identifying with an oppressed people. Jesus was exposing His deep connection with His people. He was always there with them. He was living in them! Consequently, Saul clearly that whatever he did to a follower of Jesus, he did to Jesus Himself.

More than any other first-generation Christ-follower, Saul came to understand that Jesus rescues His people by uniting Himself with each individual. Years after meeting Jesus He taught that “anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Corinthians 6:17), later adding “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Because of the believer’s intimate union with Jesus, he could face down any critic or calamity with this challenge: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35).

Sitting in the dark, Saul saw that whatever happens to the follower of Jesus, happens to Jesus. Have you seen this about Jesus and His people? Do you know whether Jesus lives inside of you?

Jesus has a detailed, stepped out plan for every life. Lying there on the ground immersed in light, Saul didn’t know what to do. Jesus said, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” So he obeyed and took that first step of many that would follow. Now sitting in the dark and waiting for the next step, Saul understood that Jesus had something for him to do. There was a larger plan being implemented and Saul was being included! He would later describe God’s plan for each individual believer in this way: “For we are His making, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Sitting in the dark, Saul also saw that Jesus didn’t give him the plan all at once. Just the next step. It is the way He leads. He doesn’t hand someone the master plan and then sit back to see how well we follow it. He takes each by the hand and says simply, “Follow Me.” Every step surfaces in the context of an ongoing and intimate relationship with Jesus.

Sitting in the dark, Saul saw that God has a plan for his life. Do you see this too?

Saul’s encounter was the last of the Easter stories in the Bible. But he was not the last to experience Easter. Every genuine follower of Jesus has a story to tell about meeting a risen Jesus.

I wish we could sit together for awhile… I’d love to hear the story of your journey this Easter. Where would you place yourself in Saul’s story? Are you still on the road? Are you sitting in the dark beginning to piece things together? Are you walking with Him now, step-by-step, enjoying Him daily? If you would like to read how my story began, go here… and if you are still wanting to know more after that I’d be glad to help. Feel free to write to me at inquiries@equippingsaints.com.

Have a very blessed and happy Easter… He is risen!