A message of grace may attract people, but a culture of grace will keep them. What our churches need, not in exchange for a gospel message but as a witness to it, is a gospeled climate. But how do you get that? How do you develop in your church community a safe space to confess, be broken, be “not okay”? What are some ways to cultivate a climate of grace in your church?
1. Ordain totally qualified elders
We often do well to make sure our elders are solid in doctrine and confident in leadership, but too often we let the just-as-important qualifications slide. Or we skimp over them in assessment. Many churches fail their communities when they ordain the smartest guys in the building because those smart guys lack in qualities like gentleness, long-temperedness, or in shepherding their families well. Consider candidates who live in open, transparent ways, who distinguish themselves in hospitality and generosity, who have reputations for patience and meekness as much as intelligence and confidence. Examine their families. Do they lead their families graciously? Do their kids seem happy? Are their wives flourishing? There is a reason Paul puts the quality of husbanding and fathering at the top of his list.
This is one reason I am particularly fond of older men as elders, particularly men with adult or young adult children. A man may have prodigal children in spite of him, of course, not because of him, and so I want to take that into consideration, but if a man’s children are no longer walking with the Lord I want to know if it was because they grew up in an undisciplined, ungodly home or an overly disciplined, rigid, authoritarian, graceless home. I am not opposed to younger elders with younger children, of course, or even single elders with none, but older men give you both the benefit of life experience and wisdom, and if they’ve been walking with Jesus for a while, they are often softer in heart than younger men. In short, what you want is not just elders who preach and teach well, but elders who love well, who shepherd well. You don’t want simply ruling elders, but gracious shepherds. Because whatever your elders are, your church will eventually be.
2. Go hard after doctrinal arrogance.
Most everyone who thinks they are right about a particular theological issue believes they came to it through growing in the Lord, not just reading information. Both the Calvinists and the Arminians in your church think that. Both the premillennialists and the postmillennialists think that. Most every one of us believes that we came to our particular view in the midst of our spiritual growth. (And we’re all right about that, sort of.) Thinking this way is only natural. But the danger in this thinking is equating our particular view with progressive sanctification. Doing so means believing that because I believe ______, I am more sanctified than you. The reason you don’t yet subscribe to my view on this matter is because you are more immature in your faith. Suddenly we are creating first and second class Christians in the community. And that’s gross.
Gently but firmly rebuke doctrinal arrogance and root it out wherever you find it. Factions develop over devotion to secondary matters quite easily if left unchecked. Be careful in preaching against sin that you don’t have “favorite” sins, pet sins to rail against. People guilty of such sins may be convicted and repent, but more often they do not hear the message of grace when their sin is repeatedly singled out but that your church is a safe place to have any sin but theirs. And there is an inverse danger in having favorite sins to preach against: it implicitly tells people who don’t struggle with that sin that they must be holy because they don’t struggle with it. By singling out certain sins for special treatment, you are helping everybody else embrace the arrogance of the Pharisee in the temple who was proud he wasn’t the tax collector.
Remind your people often that the demons have impeccable theology, that demons can be Calvinists and Arminians, millenniarians and amillenniarians.
3. Preach a whole gospel aimed at hearts, as well as minds
Preaching that takes the form more of lectures is great for creating information-glutted minds. Sometimes. But while every sermon should convey information—it should definitely teach—the purpose of a sermon is not primarily mind-informing but heart-transforming. Aim at the heart in two primary ways: 1) proclaim good news, not simply good advice, and 2) exult in your preaching. In other words, don’t just preach the text, as much as you are able, feel it. More often than not, churches don’t become passionate about what their pastors tell them to be passionate about but about what their pastors are evidently passionate about themselves. So if it’s clear from your preaching that what really fires you up is the imperatives of the Scriptures, and not the gospel indicatives, guess what? No matter how many times you tell your church to center on the gospel, they’re going to see that your zeal is reserved for the law.
And as you preach the gospel, preach to both prodigals and older brothers. Explain how the gospel is opposed to self-righteous religiosity. Entreat both “brothers” to embrace Christ, the legalist as well as the hedonist. Don’t give the impression that the gospel is just for those obvious sinners, the “lost” people, but for all people, including those in the pews every Sunday.
4. Establish limping leaders
From elders on down, don’t establish any leader who has no record of or reputation for humility. You will want to know if the leader has ever been broken, ever had his legs knocked out from under him. Don’t establish leaders who don’t walk with limps, because they often have no empathy for the broken, the hurting, the abused, or the penitent. Don’t empower any leader who has not confronted and wrestled with his own sin, who doesn’t demonstrate an ongoing humility about his sin and a grief over it. Leaders who do not personally know the scandal of grace set a climate in a church of gracelessness.
5. Promote hospitality, service, and generosity
What values, programs, initiatives do I most want to promote? The ones that are most conducive to closeness with each other and outwardness with the community. Church people don’t learn to be gracious with unchurched people if they are never in proximity with them. And often being in the same work environment doesn’t cut it. We want to facilitate and promote opportunities for growth that involve the opening of homes, the active service of people inside the church and out, and the giving away of money and stuff. Lots of things fit these bills, so you can get creative. But when church people spend a lot of time with each other in these sorts of settings—as opposed to simply classroom type settings or the worship service—they get to know each other in ways that build familiarity, empathy, intimacy, etc. And the same is true of spending time in these settings with unchurched folks, as well. A closed-off, insular, cloistered church is not conducive to a gracious climate. It runs out of air too quickly; people can’t breathe.
6. Take it personally
Most importantly, you I must be what you I want to see. So often as you are I am checking your my church’s pulse—which Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together wisely counsels against doing—we are I am thinking of all the people who need to get their act together, who need a big dose of humility. We may be right about them. But applying to others first is not the humble impulse of grace taken seriously. I need to keep a close watch on my life and doctrine. I need to outdo others in showing honor. I need to practice confession and repentance. I need to humble myself. As I am growing intellectually, I need to hold the fruit of the Spirit up to my heart and be fearless and honest about asking, “How am I doing in these areas?”
For each of us, a gracious climate begins with us.