The Bible summarizes the eyes of the world as doing the following: 1) God watches over me. 2) Christians watch out for each other. 3) The world is attracted to the light of Christ but often overcome by the distraction of darkness. The first covers God’s grace to me. The third involves our witness to the world. But the second item here is the one that I’m a little concerned about today.
This week I read a recent report generated by The Barna Group (whom I rely on heavily for up-to-date and accurate faith statistics) that suggested something I guess I would have expected, but it still feels a little shocking nonetheless. According to this national Barna survey, only about 5% of Americans who describe themselves as “Christian and involved in church” indicate that “their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their life.” Only five percent feel their church holds them accountable! (Interestingly, not a single Roman Catholic surveyed felt as though their church held them accountable. And, no, an iPhone app probably ain’t gonna change that.)
Is this all really a problem though? Well, to the person who asks this question, I’d say the same thing that I’d say to the person asking the very common question of the 21st century – “Do I have to be part of a church and go to public worship to be a Christian?”. Well, if you can find something in the New Testament or the history of the early Christian Church that supports your point of view, you may have something. Till then, being an active part of a local church and holding one another accountable are both simply part of the DNA of Christianity.
So, if only 5% of Christians today think they’re church holds them accountable, we have a problem on our hands. Biblically, there’s all sorts of places to which we could turn to stress the importance of Christian accountability. I’ll try to keep it simple though.
The writer to the Hebrews clearly saw the issue of accountability as important to his readers. Hebrews 10:24 says, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds”, and Hebrews 13:17 follows, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” (NASB)
And here’s a practical example of the importance of accountability in the early church: In 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul corrects a very confused Corinthian church about a total misperception on their part. A man in their church was having a sexual relationship with his stepmother. And Paul says that the church was proud of this! It’s hard to say why. Perhaps it was because they viewed themselves as very “unjudgmental” and “open-minded”. Paul says that even the pagan unbelievers view this as inappropriate and disgusting. And so his encouragement to the Corinthian church is to remove this unrepentant man from their midst, i.e. hold him accountable to God. “Put out of your fellowship the man who did this…..hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:2,5)
What I like about Paul’s words so much is that he makes very clear the purpose of holding the man accountable – that he repent, his relationship with God be restored, and that his soul be safe from God’s judgment. The goal of accountability is never to judge people. If you find yourself being one who is tempted to derive some twisted pleasure out of being a moral watchdog who points out everyone’s flaws, perhaps Jesus’ words about “judging” from Matthew 7:1-5 are more appropriate for you today. The goal of accountability, rather, is to help someone escape God’s righteous judgment and exchange it for Jesus’ free forgiveness. Accountability is a product of love.
If accountability really is such a good thing though, why are we so bad at it? According to the numbers, personally and congregationally in America, Christians are apparently just not holding one another accountable. Here are likely some of the reasons:
1) Fear/Dislike of Confrontation
Nobody likes to disappoint people. Nobody likes to have people mad at them. It might bother different people to differing degrees, but ultimately, nobody likes confrontation. And everybody likes their own personal space and privacy. Christians who are holding people accountable (addressing one another when unrepentant of sin) are going to face confrontation. In every church it will happen. That’s not easy. That’s not fun. But it’s healthy.
Christ’s model for this kind of accountability when it comes to impenitence (Matthew 18) is to go and talk to a person privately first. If that doesn’t bring any change, get other Christians involved. If that doesn’t bring any change, get the church involved. Unfortunately steps are often skipped here. Part of the problem is that people don’t want to face the confrontation themselves. We hate the thought of upsetting someone and making them angry at us. And 95% of the time, if you address someone caught up in unrepentant sin, they will get defensive and angry. But think about where that man in 1 Corinthians 5 would likely have ended up had the congregation not held him accountable. We find out in 2 Corinthians that upon Paul’s instruction, the church in Corinth did hold him accountable. The end result? He repented! Because they loved him enough to hold him accountable, a brother in Christ and child of God was saved. If we don’t hold people accountable, in essence, we’re saying that we’re okay with where their sin is going to lead them.
2) Low Standards
I’m not going to sugar coat this: Good Lutherans who have a solid grasp on salvation by God’s grace alone and understand the perils of work righteousness sometimes miss the boat on guiding people in their sanctified lives as Christians because they’re paranoid of being labeled as “legalists”.
Religious legalism, the belief that a person can do something to earn or merit salvation or blessing from God, is absolutely important to stay away from. However, failing to guide young, new, or immature Christians in their journey through life with expectations and standards and accountability is sort of like giving a child a credit card and saying, “Dress yourself. Feed yourself. Get yourself an education.” and then hoping everything just turns out great. A congregation might not have to stress the importance of public worship, Bible study, prayer, the sacraments, Christian stewardship, Christian witnessing, etc. to their elders as much as others. Ideally they’re spiritually mature enough to know these things already. But the rest of us not only need expectations set for us and reminders given to us, we also need to be held accountable when we’re slipping away.
3) Keeping Track of Everyone
It’s pretty easy to slip through the cracks in churches today. We don’t practice the communal living of the early church. Many people can’t name 90% of the people they worship with, which becomes a problem primarily if they have no desire to learn the names of the other 90%. And the bigger the church is, the more difficult holding everyone accountable becomes. If it would ever become exclusively the pastor’s job in a church to hold people accountable, the church wouldn’t stand a chance. Many pastors could easily fill their time contacting people that they haven’t seen in the past several weeks. But I would sincerely question the future health of that church. The idea that one person can keep track of hundreds of people, as is sometimes expected, is absurd. There has to be a better system in place.
So…………….instead of merely talking about the problems, my hope today is to present some ideas to help improve accountable within Christian churches. And I’d like you to help me – feel free to give your feedback (either personally via email or general thoughts for all to see and benefit from via the comment button below).
Idea #1 Personal Accountability Partners
A number of Christian churches have picked up on this as a successful tool implemented by Alcoholics Anonymous. Interesting that a non-Christian organization picked up on the benefits of this faster than Christian organizations like local churches. Notice that I say “Christian organizations” because Christianity (via the Bible) itself has always promoted personal accountability. “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) Even private confession to clergy, though once quite regular in the church, has almost altogether gone by the wayside. Yes, we generally confess our sins on Sunday mornings, which certainly has value. But there is something powerful about enumerating to another human your private mistakes and having them assure you of Christ’s forgiveness. Confessing to clergy is beneficial, but again, sheer numbers make it impractical. If Christians regularly did this with accountability partners, I have no doubt that there’d be great blessing in it.
Idea #2 Accountability Software
Although making some improvements, Christian churches are still typically woefully behind when it comes to technology. I poked fun at the Roman Catholic “Confessional iPhone App” earlier, but, while I don’t agree with the theology, I applaud the perceived need to communicate to this age. Martin Luther considered his greatest accomplishment to be putting God’s Word in the language of the people of his day. Well, the language of today is a digital language. And in some cases, the church is still trying to write with a typewriter to a WiFi world. The point here is, there are all sorts of technology tools available to help us as a church develop accountability.
One of the main technology temptations of the 21st century, without a doubt, is internet pornography. Fortunately, groups like the people at http://xxxchurch.com/ have developed downloadable software that will regularly send your internet viewing history to an accountability partner for a minimal fee. If online gambling or shopping is an addiction, there is software for that as well. Every computer made today has password-protected codes available to help parents monitor and limit their children’s computer usage. It would not be that difficult, with the right software, for a church to keep track of everyone who was not in church from week to week and perhaps send them a reminder email after a couple of weeks that stresses the importance of the regular use of God’s Word. It would not be that difficult, with the right software, for a church to keep track of offerings and regularly send members reminders of the importance of supporting God’s work on earth. The opportunities are really endless here, but the idea is that the technology is available to help address basic Christian accountability. And in today’s world where technology allows us to live far away from one another and church and access all sorts of spiritual trouble, it might very well take technology to help hold ourselves and one another accountable.
Idea #3 Accountability Organization
Personal accountability and software accountability are great, but unless a body of believers are structured for accountability, it’s probably not going to happen. In other words, that two Christians might come together and say, “Let’s have a conversation every week where we confess our sins to each other and point to Christ’s forgiveness”, well, it’s possible. But it’s probably not likely for most, unless a church is encouraging it regularly and faithfully following up.
Just brainstorming here, but imagine if a church made a membership requirement that “every individual will have an accountability shepherd” – someone who regularly contacts his own small group of people when they are missing and regularly asks all of these people if there is anything troubling them. Or, imagine if a church made a membership requirement that “every individual will have an accountability confession partner” – that every person regularly meets with another Christian to spend time confessing sin and comforting with Christ. In all honesty, some churches don’t even have attendance requirements for membership. And again, the argument sometimes is “But that’s legalism!”
Here’s the thing: it’s legalism if you say that you can make yourself close to God by performing outward actions. That’s not what I’m suggesting here at all. God alone can look into a person’s heart and see if true faith exists there. If a person exists in the Holy Christian Church and Communion of Saints, this is God’s work, to God’s credit, and this is God’s information. What I’m suggesting here is enforced standards that say “this is the membership requirement and expectation established by the Christian leadership of this local church“. So, if it’s possible for someone to not go to public worship for 10 years and still be a believing child of God, well, that’s for God to decide as he looks into hearts. But if someone is going to be a recognized member of this local church, then the decade drought in public worship is simply not going to meet the accountability standards put into place here to encourage spiritual health.
Now, the above suggestions are just ideas. It’s absolutely true that having “membership requirements” could potentially slip into legalism, which would be a serious mistake. But at some point in time I think we (i.e. Christian churches in America) need to start getting more serious about Christian accountability too. Right now, statistics say that we’re not.
The current average weekend worship attendance by membership in our national church body is approximately 40%, which is about the national average for most church bodies. Put another way, less than half of “active church members” feel compelled to go to a worship service weekly. And according to the research, a big part of the reason is that no one is holding them accountable.
I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again, accountability is a product of love. It requires hard work, persistence, and at times, the guts it takes to know that someone might get upset with you. Love isn’t always easy. But it’s always worth it. Accountability, therefore, is worth it as well.
If you’re still with me at this point :), let me know what you think. We (churches at large) could certainly use some good ideas.