In my first post in this series I argued that in the normal course of things, if you’re not the pastor of your church you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. In the second post I explored several seeming exceptions to this, including a couple that really are.
In this post, I want to answer the question, “Well then, what can I do if I’m in a church that seriously needs to change?”
Obviously, there are no one-size-fits-all answers to this question. Every church is different, and every person asking the question is different. So in this post I’m not giving universal, take-it-to-the-bank directions. Nor am I trying to speak to every situation under the sun. Instead, I’ll try to offer a few suggestions that should apply pretty well to many people in many churches.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR CHURCH
First, a general principle: find as much common ground as you can with your church and its leaders, and invest as much of your energy as you can doing ministry on that common ground.
If you disagree with your church’s leaders about election, at least you agree with them that people need to believe the gospel to be saved—so evangelize. If you disagree with your church’s programmatic approach to ministry, at least you agree that programs are meant to serve people and help them mature in Christ—so serve others and make disciples, whether through a program or not.
My point is that it’s easy to become fixated on the 10 percent you disagree about and ignore the 90 percent you agree on—and the countless ways you can joyfully minister together on the basis of that 90 percent. What if it’s more like a 50-50 split? I’ll address that briefly in my final post in this series.
Now on to some specifics. Here are several ministries which most people in most churches can exercise that should, by God’s grace, help a church grow healthier.
1. The Ministry of the Pew
First, the ministry of the pew. (I’d encourage you to check out Colin Marshall’s superb article on this.) The basic idea here is that every gathering of the church is an opportunity to serve others. It’s an opportunity to welcome a visitor, to share the gospel with a non-Christian who came with a friend, to help make things happen behind the scenes, to discover and bear others’ burdens, and to stir up others to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25).
So shift from being a consumer to being a producer. Don’t view church as a time for a private religious experience, but as a rare, precious opportunity to serve so many people in such a short time.
If your church suffers from the 20/80 syndrome—20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work—then your ministry of the pew should not only help necessary ministry to get done, but also set an example for others to follow. Over time, who knows how many people you might disciple into more active, selfless service in the church? More on that below.
Finally, this type of quiet, diligent, initiative-taking service is just the kind of thing that, over time, earns respect, trust, and sometimes even a hearing for new ideas.
2. The Ministry of the Pulpit Committee
Second, the ministry of the pulpit committee. Obviously, few people will have the chance to sit on a search committee. (Actually I don’t think churches should even have “search committees,” but that’s another story—and we have to do what we can with what we have.) But if your church is in need of a main preaching pastor, there is no more strategic way you can change your church than by working to call a faithful, godly expositor of the Word.
In a pulpit committee, a little leadership can go a long way. So suggest that you begin with the recommendation of a trusted pastor instead of hauling in a heap of resumes. That may well meet with approval, if only because it reduces the committee’s workload. And propose a biblical list of qualifications and priorities early on. That may point the committee’s focus in the right direction, as well as help prevent unbiblical preferences from torpedoing a godly, qualified man’s candidacy.
But my main point is this: however you can reasonably influence your church’s next choice of a pastor, do it. Of course not everyone will get to sit on a pulpit committee, but in most churches, every member will have some kind of say in who the next pastor will be. So steward—and leverage—that responsibility wisely.
3. The Ministry of Prayer
Third, the ministry of prayer. Praise God for the gift of your church. Praise him for his marvelous plan to call out a people for his glory, and his promise never to leave his church or let Satan triumph over it.
And, even more to the point, give thanks for your church. Thanksgiving pulls up bitterness and complaining by the roots—and if you passionately want to change your church, those temptations will be close at hand. So give thanks for every evidence of God’s grace in the church that you can come up with.
Confess your own sins, the ways you’ve wronged the church. And intercede for your church. Ask God to give your whole church discernment, love, unity, humility, patience. Ask God to give your leaders wisdom and courage. Ask God to grow your church’s understanding of, and obedience to, his Word. Pray constantly. And trust that God will work.
You may not be able to change your church, but God can. So pray.
4. The Ministry of Personal Discipling
Fourth, the ministry of personal discipling. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with “the church,” focus on how you can help individual members of the church grow in grace. You can change your church by helping members grow in their understanding of Scripture, love for Christ, love for the church, service to their families, boldness in evangelism, and more.
And you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to start discipling. Just start pursuing others’ spiritual good. Build relationships that are centered on mutually helping each other grow in Christ. Read through books of the Bible with other church members over lunch or on the weekend. Ask probing spiritual questions and set an example for others through your own transparency and humility.
In short, perhaps the single most effective way you can change your church is to personally help others be conformed to the image of Christ.
5. The Ministry of a Personal Example
Fifth and finally, the ministry of a personal example. One of the most effective ways to change a church is to be constantly growing in Christ and deliberately serving as a model for others. This of course goes hand in hand with discipleship.
You may not be able to change your church’s leadership structure, but you can set an example of humbly submitting to the leaders and making their job a joy (Heb. 13:17). You may not be able to convert your pastor to expositional preaching, but you can model an infectious love for the Scriptures that spills over to others.
You don’t want to set yourself up as a model in a way that creates a little troop of disciples who are more devoted to you than to the church. Instead, you example should have just the opposite effect. Your life should be such a model of faithful, unity-building service in the church that what other people learn from your example is not just how to grow in personal piety, but how to be a good church member.
In other words, you should set the kind of example that, if everyone in the church followed it, would make your church healthier, more unified, and more committed to each others’ good.
ONE MORE LOOSE END
You might not be able to change everything in your church that you want to, but I think this list is more than enough to keep most of us busy.
There is still one loose end I want to tie up: how do you humbly and contentedly deal with a church that has serious problems and in all probability isn’t going to change? I can offer only the briefest and most general of answers, but I hope to do that in my final post in this series.
9Marks has the great opportunity to host three (count 'em - three!) panel discussions during the Tuesday afternoon breakout sessions at The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference next April. Jonathan Leeman and I will be hosting the conversations and we have some really great panelists lined up.
We look forward to seeing you there. If you are able to attend the discussions, please make sure you swing by the front afterwards and ask Jonathan to autograph your Bible.
Here are some details about the panels:
1) Growth and Grace: How Obedience Sets Us Free...Or Not
Co-Hosts: Mike McKinley and Jonathan Leeman
Confirmed Panelists: Tom Schreiner, Hunter Powell, John Piper, Tim Keller
Is Christian freedom about watching movies or memorizing the Ten Commandments? Can Christians smoke cigarettes? What does it mean for a Christian to delight in God’s law? All Christians want to grow in grace, but it seems easy for churches to stumble into legalism or license. The goal of this panel is to consider what it means to pursue Christian holiness and freedom, and how the local church is the best place to do both.
2) Membership and Mission: Why Membership Matters for the Church's Mission...or Hurts It
Co-Hosts: Mike McKinley and Jonathan Leeman
Confirmed Panelists: K. Edward Copeland, Matt Chandler, Andy Davis
The knock on church membership is that it’s all about counting numbers and boosting the pastor’s ego. Biblical churches, however, are all about mission. Membership looks inward, mission outward, right? But what if someone wanted to argue that getting our membership practices right was essential to revitalizing our churches, evangelizing our neighborhoods, furthering the cause of Christ around the world, and bringing glory to God?
3) Conversion and Community: How the Church Pictures Supernatural Community...Sort of
Co-Hosts: Mike McKinley and Jonathan Leeman
Confirmed Panelists: R. Albert Mohler, Jared Wilson, Jeramie Rinne, J. D. Greear
The cultural forces against the Christian teaching on conversion are intense. Just consider the claims of naturalism, the affirmation “gay is good,” the call to respect all religions, and contemporary ideas of tolerance. But surely the power of a church’s witness depends on people who have been supernaturally changed. How do we talk about something that both offends and gives hope? Do we call people to…convert? How critical is repentance? Can they belong before they believe?
In my previous post I argued that, by and large, if you’re not the pastor of your church, you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. And I admitted that there are exceptions, though most of them prove the rule. This post is devoted to the exceptions, since I recognize that many readers will in fact find themselves in exceptional situations.
In my next two posts after this I plan to focus on what you actually can do in most circumstances to change your church, even when you’re not the pastor. But for now, the exceptions.
GENUINE EXCEPTION 1: WHEN YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR CHURCH
The first exception is if your church is drifting into serious doctrinal error, like denying the Trinity, or the inspiration and authority of Scripture, or salvation by God’s grace alone through faith alone. If that’s the case, you not only can but must work to change your church.
In Revelation 2, Jesus holds entire local churches accountable for what they did with false teachers (Rev. 2:2, 14, 15, 20, 24). If they threw the false teachers out, Jesus commends them. If they tolerated false teachers, Jesus condemns them.
Ultimately, therefore, it is the responsibility of the local church as a whole to uphold sound doctrine. This means that if your church begins to deny major doctrines, you personally have an obligation to do something about it.
What you do will depend on who’s teaching what, and on the magnitude of the error. Certainly if a pastor is teaching major doctrinal error, he needs to be removed from the pulpit. If other officially recognized church leaders can lead the church to take this action, good. If not, things might get messier, but you’ve still got an obligation to get rid of a teacher who is seriously departing from Scripture.
So if that’s your situation, pray for wisdom. Pray for unity among your church. Pray that truth would outshine error. And prayerfully get to work removing the unfaithful pastor and finding a more faithful one.
So that’s one genuine exception to the idea that you can’t change the church if you’re not the pastor. There’s another one I’ll mention at the end. But first, here are a few scenarios that look like exceptions but aren’t.
1. “Help Wanted”
First, in my previous post I did not at all mean that individual church members cannot contribute in any significant way to the ongoing reformation of a church. Just the opposite is true: church reform has to take root in the entire membership or else it’s not church reform at all.
To get specific, let’s say you’re part of a church that is in the process of being reformed or revitalized. And let’s say you agree with your church’s leaders about the church’s problems and the solutions to be pursued. Can you work to change your church in this situation? Of course! Can you take initiative and spearhead some of the efforts under the direction of the pastor(s)? Of course!
In other words, if a biblical, reform-minded pastor hangs out “Help Wanted” sign, by all means lend a hand.
In this situation, though, you’re not working to change the direction of the church so much as helping pull it in the direction the leaders are already pointing toward. You’re not working against the leaders, but with the leaders. And your work as a church member is absolutely crucial.
2. He Seems Open to Change…
Sometimes pastors seem genuinely open to change. They talk about wanting to go in a new direction. Maybe they’ve acquired a new set of influences, read some new books, discovered a new model. Sometimes, this will lead to concrete change, in which case we’ve skipped up into scenario one.
But sometimes, pastors can desire change, or agree with the theoretical need for change, without actually committing to lead that change. Sometimes pastors will be open to counsel, and will even sweetly, obligingly agree with a member who is pushing in a new direction. But here’s the thing: if a pastor isn’t willing to personally lead change, that change will never stick at the level of the whole church.
If a church is going to change, it’s going to cost the pastor more than anyone. The pastor will have to teach publicly. He’ll have to initiate practical reforms. He’ll have to answer questions. What’s more costly, he’ll have to be willing to take some punches, upset some long-time members, and generally make things a lot harder for himself in order to see the change through.
If a pastor’s not willing to do all that, no church member can make him. If a pastor is not convinced that he must change the direction of the church, you can’t play surrogate conscience for him. If a pastor isn’t willing to go out and lead change, you can’t shove him out there and feed him lines from backstage.
In short, just because a pastor seems open to change doesn’t mean that he—or the church—actually will.
3. Leading from Second Chair
What about if you’re a pastor of a church but not the primary preacher?
First, let me affirm that all of a church’s pastors or elders share together the responsibility to lead and direct the church. This means that if there is a “senior pastor,” he should regularly lose votes among the elders, and he should thank God for giving the church more wisdom than is in him.
Second, though, in most churches there will be one man who does the bulk of the preaching, and who possesses a corresponding amount of informal pastoral authority. And as I said in my previous post, most preaching pastors’ convictions about fundamental matters of ecclesiology and ministry are not wet cement. Further, practically speaking, the “senior pastor” will have to not only agree with any changes you propose, but in some sense spearhead them. So we’re back up to situation two.
The bottom line is, you can’t lead change from second chair. It will sow seeds of division and sour your relationship with your fellow pastor.
GENUINE EXCEPTION 2: CHURCH ABHORS A VACUUM
Finally, though, there’s at least one more genuine exception that I can see: a leadership vacuum. What I primarily have in mind here is a church that for whatever reason doesn’t have a formally recognized pastor, especially if a pastor recently left.
In the absence of a visible, universally acknowledged leader or leaders, the direction of the church will be well and truly up for grabs. And if there’s a leadership vacuum in the church, then someone will step in and fill it.
Therefore, church members who are qualified to lead and are committed to biblical reform should try, as in chess, to own the middle of the board. They should step into leading roles, gently set new trajectories, build consensus around biblical priorities, ward off unhelpful agendas, and work to call a pastor who will preach and lead faithfully.
We might call this move “church reform from below.” Those situations are rare, and they’re certainly messy. But it’s been done, and when God is pleased to bless the work, the fruit can be stunning.
MORE TO COME
Whether you’re in one of these exceptional situations or not, I pray God would give you wisdom to discern how best to serve, strengthen, and unify your local church, regardless of how you may or may not be able to change it.
And if you’re in a church that needs to change but you seem powerless to change it, keep tuning in. In my next two posts I’ll try to offer a few practical suggestions about how church members can change just about any church for the better, as well as how to live with what you can’t change.
Seems like at least once a month I get an email from a church member—not a pastor—asking how they can change their church. Not “change” as in printing the bulletins on different paper, but as in reworking the church’s leadership structure and membership practices. Should they give the pastor some books? Call a meeting? Start a study group?
If you’re in this situation, what can you do? How can you change your church when you’re not the pastor?
The short answer is, you can’t. If you’re not the pastor, you can’t change your church. Really. I mean it. No surprise retraction waiting in the wings.
Now, I’m a congregationalist, so of course I believe that a church can—and must—fire their pastor if he starts going where the Bible doesn’t go. The pastor doesn’t have final authority; the congregation as a whole does.
But apart from those exceptional times, if you aren’t the person who is formally charged to preach the Word and lead the church, then you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. This applies almost equally to a pastor who is not a church’s primary preacher. (I’m referring primarily to “the pastor” since most churches only have one.)
WHY YOU CAN’T CHANGE YOUR CHURCH—OR YOUR PASTOR
Why can’t you change your church if you’re not the pastor? Here are four reasons.
1. The Word Works Change
God’s Word is what enlivens, empowers, illuminates, and transforms God’s people. God’s Word is what works change in the church. This applies as much to worship practices and leadership structure as it does to personal holiness.
Therefore, the preaching the whole church hears every week is the most important force shaping the church. The pulpit is the fountain of change. If you don’t have charge of the pulpit, you simply can’t lead change that will affect the whole church.
2. Influence, Office, and the Ministry of the Word
God has commanded churches to submit to—to trust, to follow—their elders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5). By their teaching and godly character, elders are to serve as examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Their faithful biblical exposition and godly, transparent lives are meant to multiply their influence and authority in the church.
In other words, when the Holy Spirit appoints elders in a church (Acts 20:28), it’s as if he puts them up on stage in front of the church, shines a spotlight at them, and says, “Follow these men!” So if you’re not one of those men, why should the church follow you?
More than that, if you’re trying to lead the church in a different direction than its appointed leaders want to take it, why should the church trust you instead of its own elders? In this case you’re working against the grain of how God wants the church led. You’re grinding the gears God has set up for directing his people.
Is that kind of gear-splitting reformation ever justifiable? Of course. But don’t be too quick to invoke Luther.
Instead, recognize how God has tied together the office of elder (pastor), the ministry of the Word, and pastoral influence. If you’re trying to lead a church in a direction its own elders don’t want to go in, that’s likely not reformation, but divisiveness.
3. You Can’t Teach an Old Pastor New Tricks
Third, you can’t teach an old pastor new tricks.
Of course a godly, humble man will continue to grow and learn. And once in a long while, a seasoned pastor will undergo a philosophical transformation. But most pastors’ views on matters such as preaching, leadership, and church structure are not exactly up for grabs. And if the pastor’s position isn’t going to change, the church isn’t going to change.
This is often a function of the limits of pastoral imagination. If a Southern Baptist pastor has only ever heard Presbyterians calling church leaders “elders,” you’re not likely to convince him that it’s biblical. He simply can’t imagine that that’s right. And if a pastor has never been part of a church that took membership seriously, then “cleaning up the rolls” is going to seem about as advisable as swatting a hornet’s nest—all pain and no gain. He can’t envision the goal on the far side of the mess, and so he isn’t compelled to drive through the mess to get there.
Many pastors do ministry the only way they know how. It’s the only way they were trained, the only way they’ve seen modeled, the only way they trust. So, in general, you can’t change your pastor.
4. Absalom at the Gate
Finally, let’s say that after giving up on trying to change the pastor, you still try to change your church from your place in the pew. What will the harvest be?
I’d suggest that whatever you do will almost inevitably have a dual effect: in some measure you will undermine the leaders and divide the church.
Let’s say you’re well-loved in the church and are, informally, an influential leader. If people start to latch on to you and your ideas, that will undercut their trust in, affection for, and loyalty to their pastor(s). You’ll be Absalom at the gate, winning the hearts of the people away from his father David. Regardless of the professedly righteous merits of your cause, you’ll be undermining the man or men whom the Holy Spirit has appointed to shepherd this body.
And, you’ll divide the church. Since to agree with you is to disagree with the pastor, you’ll leave people no choice but to split into factions. Instead of reforming the church, you’ll be incubating a church split.
EXCEPTIONS? NEXT STEPS? NEXT THREE ARTICLES
Are there exceptions to this? Of course there are, though most of them prove the rule.
And if you’re a member of a church that sorely needs reformation, is there anything you can do to help it in the right direction, non-pastor though you are? Of course there is. I’m saying you can’t turn the ship around 180 degrees. I’m not saying you can’t work for lesser, incremental change or try to gently influence your pastor.
I’ll take up those points, Lord willing, in three more articles in the next week.
For now, just put the church reform gun down, walk away slowly, and no one will get hurt. And then go thank God for your church, even though it needs reformation, just like you and I do.
Dr. Hunter Powell is an expert on many things, chief among them being soft cheeses and the discussions about polity that took place between Congregationalists and Presbyterians and the Westminster Assembly. (You can hear Jonathan Leeman interview Hunter and Mark Dever about polity here.)
Since I've been on sabbatical all summer, cooling my heels in the lovely Pacific NW, Hunter has been preaching on Sunday mornings at the church where we both serve as pastors. Since we couldn't think of titles for nine different sermons on cheese, we decided to have him preach about congregationalism.
The result was a very helpful series that outline some of the Scriptural basis for thinking through church government from an elder-led congregationalist perspective. If they would be useful to you, links to each sermon are below.
- Faith and Order: Why Church Government Matters
- Christ, King of His Church
- Christ's Congregational Churches: Stewards of the Keys
- A Church of Visible Saints
- A Church Governed By Elders
- The Lord's Supper
- Baptism and the New Covenant Community
- The Purposes of Church Government: Mutual Edification
- The Purposes of Church Government: Worship
From the first appendix to 9Marks of a Healthy Church:
- Be truthful. Ask God to keep you faithful to His written Word. Never underestimate the power of teaching truth.
- Be trustful. Rely on God rather than on your own gifts and abilities. Spend time in prayer privately, with others, and with the congregation.
- Be positive. Pray that you neither be nor be perceived to be fundamentally a critic.
- Be particular. Contextualize God’s concern for His church. Use the good resources of your church’s own history. Learn from older members about the history of your church.
There's a brief interview with Mark Dever on pages 55-58 of the new issue of Credo Magazine. In it Mark discusses the two new 9Marks books B&H has recently released: The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, and Preach, which Mark co-wrote with Greg Gilbert.
About where The Church might not meet with resounding agreement, Mark says:
Jamie, thanks for your post. I think you’re right. Here are my (somewhat overlapping) thoughts:
- The question hits on a soft spot in American Christianity. We’re very private about our finances; most of us would much rather talk about our sex lives than our bank accounts. And so it seems natural to assume that Christian discipleship might require us to stretch and change in some ways regarding our willingness to talk about our finances.
- I personally don’t want to know what people in our church are giving becuase I want to avoid the temptation to show favoritism to the rich. Also, the standard of NT giving is cheerfulness and generosity rather than any fixed percentage, and it’s hard for me to gauge that as a pastor from a spreadsheet.
- I think it can be wise to drill down more into details when dealing with church leadership. Before our church recognizes a man as an elder, I want to make sure that his financial life makes a worthy example for the church. That doesn’t mean that I am going to ask for a report of his giving over the past years, but the elders will ask him pointed questions. Also, because I receive my living from the church’s finances, I feel a particular burden to be accountable with my personal finances. In the past I have submitted a detailed family budget to the elders of our church for their comments and corrections (if needed).
- Because (as the question mentions) our money and our hearts are so closely intertwined, shepherding people will involve helping them to be obedient disciples with their money. And while it’s easy to reduce that entire field of discipleship to merely the offerings someone makes to the church, in reality it’s much more comprehensive. We need to help people consider how they give to the church, how they spend their money, how they save, and how they live generously towards others. A “giving report” will only scratch the surface of that bigger picture.
9Marks recently received the following question:
"I have grown up in a church culture where giving is always secret. Perhaps a trustee, treasurer, deacon or two know the giving of each family (someone prepares the tax receipts), but the pastors of the church remain in blissful ignorance. The reasons for this range from official policy to the pastor's desire to avoid favoritism (James 2:1-13).
But is this practice biblical? Jesus teaches on money and giving more than any other topic except the Kingdom of God. Giving is such an important spiritual thermometer (Matthew 6:21, Matthew 19:16-26). And Jesus taught on the topic as he watched the widow give all that she had--her very life--at the temple (Mark 8:41-44).
When it comes to shepherding, it seems perilous to neglect one of the most important evidences of spiritual fruit, or lack thereof. How should the elders of the church handle this sensitive subject? What are the biblical and pragmatic reasons for and against pastoral oversight of the offering plate?"
Here are a few thoughts. (Any other 9Marks bloggers are more than welcome to weigh in.)