How to Change Your Church

Article
03.01.2010

Pastors often ask me, “How do we get our churches to change?” Too many ministers have alienated their churches trying to bring change. Some have even been fired.

Still, as shepherds, we must lead our churches to change, even though such change will often be difficult. Here’s a few suggestions about how to bring change: teach, stay and love.

Teach to change

First, our ideas for our churches should come from Scripture. That makes the pulpit the most powerful tool for changing a church. Regular expositional preaching of Scripture is how God’s Spirit normally works in human hearts.

Pray that through your preaching, God will teach your church how it needs to change. It is amazing how often we pastors want to fix problems before we’ve given time to explaining the problems!

Too many pastors try to force change in their church—often defended as leadership—when they should try to inform the church. Brothers, we should feed the sheep entrusted to our care, not beat them. Teach them.

Even if the change you envision is right, there is still the question of whether the time is right. Being right is not a license for immediate action, which brings me to my second point.

Stay to change

The idea of committing to one place is vanishing in the workplace and the home. The model for younger generations is not a pre-fabricated corporate ladder, with carefully limited pathways, but rather the mosaic of the world-wide web, with alternatives and options seeming to spread out infinitely. We’re being taught to value varying experiences, understanding each one as enriching the other.

We pastors need to set a different model in our churches. We need to teach them that commitment is good, whether that’s to our marriages and families, our friends and our faith, or our church and our neighborhood. It is in the light of such longer-term commitments (thinking in terms not of months, but of decades) that we can help our churches find their right priorities.

As a pastor, your greatest power to help your congregation change comes not through your forceful personality, but through years of faithful, patient teaching. Changes that don’t happen this year may come next year, or in ten.

To that end, choose your battles wisely, carefully prioritizing one needed change over another. Which of the changes that are needed is most needed right now? Which can wait? Generally speaking, pastors need to learn how to think in a mature, long-range way.

Long pastorates help the pastor, too. They keep him from coming with a bag of tricks, doing his thing for two or three years, and then moving on. Generally, the longer we stay, the more real we have to be—and that’s good for our own souls and for those we serve.

The key to change is to stay in one church long enough to teach the congregation. If you don’t plan on staying, then be careful before starting something that the next guy is going to have to finish. Don’t leave the congregation hardened against you or your successor, or even against the change itself.

As a young seminarian, I took three Cambridge Anglican clergymen as my models. All had expositional ministries in key locations stretching over many years—Richard Sibbes (in Cambridge and London for 30 years), Charles Simeon (in Cambridge for over 50 years), and John Stott (in London for over 50 years). By the grace of God, all three of these men built the church they served, and effected the rising ministerial generations by their long faithfulness.

Love to change

To desire the right changes, to teach about them, and to stay long enough, you must love. You must love the Lord, and you must love the people whom he has entrusted to you.

Clement of Rome said, “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over his flock.” From love comes the patient care that again and again turns the congregation to the Word of God.

Jonathan Edwards was no less faithful a pastor because his congregation dismissed him. Some of us have had short and faithful pastorates. But these are not my concern here. With this short piece, I have simply tried to raise in your mind some ideas of how you may—by teaching, staying, and loving—lead your congregation in biblical change.