The work of church reform can look a little like a jungle when you’re in the thick of it. Where do I go from here? Where do I even start? What do you do first? What should you ignore? What’s the goal I should be working toward?
A ROADMAP FOR CHURCH REFORM
Of course, every situation will be different, but I think there’s also a general pattern that sets a pretty good course for guys trying to lead a church in reform. Here’s a short roadmap that might help you keep your bearings as you move forward.
1. Preach the Word.
First, preach the Word. This is not just step one; it is the air you breathe. Always and as long as the Lord gives you breath, preach the Word. It is God’s Word that gives life, and it is God’s Word that the Holy Spirit uses to shape a church into the image of Jesus. If you don’t do this—faithfully, accurately, and well—reforming the church won’t matter anyway.
Also, a huge part of reforming a church is constantly teaching your congregation about the biblical foundations for what you’re doing. At every step along the way, you’ll have to teach them—about membership, about elders, about deacons, about congregationalism, and even about the meaning of the church itself. The teaching component of reform is never done. In fact, it clears the way for everything else.
2. Learn the Polity.
Second, learn your church’s polity. If you’re going to reform a church rather than start it from scratch, you have to know its polity. You have to know how to change things. What do you have to do to change the rules? To elect leaders? To bring members in or see them out? How does it all work? You as the reforming pastor need to know the existing rules better than anybody in the church. If you don’t—if you just try to steamroll things—you’ll create massive problems for yourself because people will feel cheated. It’s usually easier for someone to swallow defeat if they feel it’s been above board. You want to create a rebellion against you? Ignore the rules.
3. Get to Know the Gatekeepers.
Third, get to know the gatekeepers. Every church has pressure points of authority, people who are in key positions of leadership, whether formal or informal. In a situation that needs reform, a good number of those gatekeepers—by definition—are going to be problematic. Otherwise the church would have reformed itself before you got there.
In order to reform a church, then, get to know those people. Spend time with them before you offend them, and find out what they value, how they communicate, and how they can be persuaded. It’s helpful to know which of those people can influence others of them, and where those people are going to be helpful to you at different points in the reform. If the deacon chairman likes the idea of elders but hates the idea of meaningful membership, lean on him when you get to elders, but don’t count on him when you’re dealing with membership.
4. Get Some Help.
Fourth, get some help. You can’t do a reform alone. You want other people to think through it with you, to look at ideas and identify the ninety percent of them that are bad, and to talk you down from doing stupid things and talk you into doing things that are good but unpleasant. It doesn’t have to be formal; you don’t need to elect men to fill this role. But you do want them to “buy in” to the reform, almost as much as you yourself have. You want them to feel the weight of it, to care about it deeply, and to have not a thought in their brains of leaving you high and dry if the going gets tough. Look for men you’d nominate as elders if you could. They need to be not just big voices, but peacemakers and persuaders, encouragers and spine-stiffeners. If you can find even one or two men like that to walk alongside you, your work will be immeasurably more bearable.
5. Make Membership Meaningful.
Fifth, make membership meaningful. This is one of the first things you can do in a reform, and the good thing is that most pastors will be able to do at least part of this without any formal change to a rule. It probably won’t require a congregational vote. Even if you’re culturally required to keep letting people into membership after they “walk the aisle” of the church, most pastors will at least be able to make a case that it would be good for him to speak with prospective members before they’re allowed to join. Then, when you meet with them, you can make sure they understand the gospel and are actually Christians. Not only that, but you should also begin, early in the reform, to make your membership rolls more accurately reflect your attendance. If there are people on your rolls who have not attended the church in decades, you should probably remove them. The decisions about the various steps of reform in your church should be made by people who actually have a vested interest in the church, not people who simply show up for crucial votes and then disappear again.
6. Reform the Rules.
Sixth, reform the rules. Once the membership rolls are clean and accurately reflect your attendance, you should move carefully to reform the church’s rules, if that’s necessary. Usually that means amending or replacing the constitution or by-laws. The point to notice is that reforming the rules is actually pretty far down the timeline of reform. You might think of it as the fruit that emerges from a lotof spadework, sometimes years of spadework, that has to be done first. Once it’s done, though, it paves the way for even more beneficial reforms.
7. Recognize Elders.
Seventh, recognize elders. If your congregation was ready to change its rules to make way for a plurality of pastors, they’ll probably be ready now to recognize men to become elders. On the other hand, the specific is always harder than the abstract, and deciding which men to nominate is often a difficult decision. You may have some men in the church who will be obviously qualified to fill that role, but there will also likely be some who are almost qualified. There may also be some men whom the congregation would expect to be recognized as elders, but who actually are not qualified at all. As with every other step in the reform, you’ll need to do a good deal of teaching on the role and character of elders before you nominate a group of men.
8. Develop a Culture of Discipleship, and Build Structures to Support it.
Eighth, develop a culture of discipleship, and build structures to support it. Once you have a group of men recognized as elders, the next step is to start building on the foundation of reform you’ve laid. That’s not just a step in a process; it’s a lifelong process of leading the church in its spiritual growth. Building a culture of discipleship is key to that growth: By example and by teaching, you want to show your congregation what being a Christian is all about, and how the church functions in helping Christians to grow.
Not only so, but you should build structures that will support that culture of discipleship. Different churches do this in different ways, of course. At my church, we have a structure of home groups that support discipleship for about eighty five percent of our members. Other churches rely on other structures. The important thing to remember is that discipleship doesn’t just happen; it has to be led and supported.
9. Preach the Word.
Ninth, preach the Word. We end where we began. The most fundamental step in church reform—and it’s more than a step; it’s what underlies and pervades everything—is to make sure the Word of God is being proclaimed and applied to every area of the church’s life. When the membership is cleaned up, the rules are reformed, the officers are elected, and the discipleship structures are in place, what’s left is a lifetime of preaching the Word and praying that God would cause growth. We can plant and we can water, but if there is to be life, it will only be by God’s gracious power.
CHURCH REFORM: MORE LIKE PARENTING THAN BUILDING A MACHINE
I’ve given you a set of numbered steps here, and they are roughly the steps we followed as we were working to reform Third Avenue Baptist in Louisville. But of course, a church isn’t a machine, and church reform isn’t a matter of just clicking parts into place. Different situations may call for a different order of steps, and that’s where pastoral wisdom comes in. In the end, reforming a church is much more like parenting a child than it is like building a machine. You pour yourself into the church, you love it, you serve it, you instruct, and you lead it—and you pray all along that God will mature it into a vibrant, living witness to his Son.
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of What is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010) and, with Kevin DeYoung, of What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway, 2011).
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