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.)
I recently had the chance to talk with John Smuts, a pastor in the Sydney, Australia area, about how he and other local Baptist pastors are working together to raise up pastors through a partnership called The Noble Task. Their work is an excellent example of the kind of apostolic pastoring we commended in a recent 9Marks Journal.
I hope that many pastors will be encouraged, challenged, and equipped for similar work through learning from John’s experience.
Bobby Jamieson: Tell me a little bit about The Noble Task. What do you do?
John Smuts: A bunch of likeminded Baptist pastors in New South Wales (Australia) got together to form a network for the express purpose, under God’s grace, of raising up the next generation of Baptist pastors. Being a relational network means that while we are not seeking to be exclusive, we are all roughly on the same page theologically.
Bobby Jamieson: Why did you and other pastors in your area start The Noble Task?
John Smuts: In Sydney there has been a lot of good gospel ministry, particularly among students, that has encouraged a generation of believers to consider full-time ministry. Some of it has been inter-denominational and some of it has been amongst the strong denominations, such as the Sydney Anglicans. We thank God for all those initiatives and are keen to carry on partnering with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Nonetheless, it occurred to us that no one is going to encourage godly men to consider Baptist pastoral ministry in particular if we don’t. We are not in competition with other churches but simply acknowledge that they are not going to send guys our way. Why should they? Therefore we started The Noble Task to set up both a clear path into Baptist ministry and a network of likeminded churches to encourage people along the way.
Bobby Jamieson: How do you try to equip churches to raise up pastors? And could you give a few examples of how the local churches themselves are training men for ministry?
John Smuts: The Noble Task is very low maintenance. It is not an organisation with staff and an office. It is just a network. We’ve got two main strategies:
1. Recruiting and networking pastoral trainees. We do this through The Noble Task information evening, campus appearances and promotion, advice, and a job-openings network linked to the MTS traineeship paradigm (MTS = Ministry Training Strategy, based here in Sydney).
2. Equipping and resourcing pastoral trainers. We do this through The Noble Task pastors’ day and church networks.
Therefore the administration for The Noble Task is light. We have one event in November to recruit men to full-time Baptist pastoral ministry, and the pastors meet in June every year to share names of those in the process and to pray for the Lord to raise up gospel ministers. Mostly it functions as a relational network, but the key aspect is its intentionality.
We believe that the main work—the hard work—is done at the local church level. All the pastors are praying for and identifying gospel workers in their churches. Usually this starts with meeting up with them 1-to-1 while beginning to give them some ministry responsibility. Following on from that, several churches appoint pastoral trainees for one or two years. This can happen before or after formal theological training.
As an example, we have been privileged to see many guys going into ministry here at Petersham Baptist. It is exciting to meet up with pastors in Sydney and NSW who have staff members who were student pastors here just a few years ago. Currently both the pastor of our evening congregation and our female Children and Family worker were members at PBC before we appointed them to staff.
This year we have four student pastors, all studying at local theological colleges and training for ministry. We pay them only a little, basically a very generous book allowance, but give them some responsibility within the church. One key aspect of my role (and the evening congregation pastor’s role) is to train them. We cannot take the credit for all these people since the main reason why some of them are here is the proximity of our church to several evangelical Bible colleges. Nevertheless it does show what exciting things can happen, by God’s grace, when we are intentional about recruiting and training for gospel ministry.
Bobby Jamieson: What fruit have you seen so far?
John Smuts: Last time the pastors got together we came up with a rough list of thirty names of men at some point on the journey towards full-time pastoral ministry. I’m not great with numbers but I think we are praying for fifty new Baptist pastors here in NSW, from our network, by 2020.
Bobby Jamieson: Any lessons learned that might serve other pastors who are similarly trying to raise up pastors?
John Smuts: Leading a church is hard work. The overwhelming temptation is to devote all our efforts into keeping the wheels turning. It is costly to make this a priority. Am I most concerned with using my time for extra sermon prep and conference speaking and the things that make me look good? Or do I invest in training others to make them look good? Yet, according to Paul in 2 Timothy 2:2, this is how the church grows. Pastors find godly men to whom they can entrust the message, and then train them to pass it on to others. That is The Noble Task.
(Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, Jonathan Leeman posted about pastors’ wives. The following post offers a complementary perspective, especially regarding Jonathan’s comments about the “louder volume.”)
From personal and pastoral experience I think that we should look for certain qualifications in an elder’s wife, even though no such qualifications are specified in the New Testament. Not asking for any specific qualities from an elder’s wife would seem to express a lack of concern and love for that sister and her husband. The charge of spiritual leadership of an elder is no light burden, and an elder’s wife will inevitably feel some of the effects of that burden.
If the elder is to be above reproach and serve the local church with joy, this man will need his wife to be able to support her husband, rest in Lord in moments of distress, never lose her love for the church of Christ, and keep her life free from serious sin that would reflect poorly on her husband and the church.
I have found through the years that spending time with prospective elders and their wives talking and praying about the kingdom of God, the life of a Christian family and serving the church is the best way of gently evaluating and training future elders’ wife to adequately and joyfully support their husbands when the time comes. At our church we do this by coaching the prospective elder and his wife for 2-3 years, but that is another subject.
Credo Magazine interviewed Bobby Jamieson about his AWESOME new study guides on each of the nine marks. Here it is.
Each of the study guides offers a six or seven week inductive Bible study on the nine marks. I recently taught about a dozen people through the booklet on church leadership. It went really well. The members were able to see for themselves in the Bible how God intends for authority to be used for good in the church's life. They were encouraged. So was I!
For real, you want these!