Imagination, Church Reform, and the Art of the Impossible


This might sound strange coming from the 9Marks blog, but I suspect one of the least-diagnosed pastoral blind spots is a lack of imagination.

I don’t mean that pastors need to cram their sermons full of creative stories or coax a bold vision for their church out of the murky depths of their subconscious. Instead, I mean that it’s all too easy to limit what we think is right to what we think is possible. Often, if a pastor can’t see how he can lead his people somewhere right now, he may not be inclined to consider whether God in fact points him there in his Word.

Say you’re pastoring a church that has had a 9:00am “traditional” service and an 11:00am “contemporary” service ever since worship wars rocked the church back in the mid-80s, twenty-five years before you became the pastor. The demographic division this perpetuated has bothered you, but not enough to prompt you to whack at that particular hornet’s nest. You’ve had plenty of other hives to upset.

Now, though, you’re eating breakfast with a church-planter friend named Tim who’s all hyped up about congregationalism. He’s going on and on about how the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means assembly, and you can’t have an assembly that doesn’t actually assemble. So if you have multiple assemblies, you actually have multiple churches. And according to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, Jesus has given authority over the church to the church as a whole—the entire assembly. So those who exercise discipline over one another should be those, and only those, who regularly assemble as one body.

That’s why, unlike many church planters who build multiple services and sites into the ground floor of their planting strategy, Tim is committed to keeping his church assembling as one. To do anything else, on his understanding, would be to depart from Scripture’s normative pattern.

“Hey,” Tim pivots, “have you ever thought about combining your church’s two services into one?”

What’s your initial, inward reaction to Tim’s question? I suspect for many pastors it would be, “Yeah, I have, but it’s just not possible.” We’ll probe that response in a moment.

What I’m even more interested in is this: what do you do with the set of biblical arguments Tim’s just given you?

I don’t know what you personally would do, of course, and I’m not presuming to tell you. But I suspect that many pastors—faithful, gospel-loving, Bible-treasuring pastors—would simply ignore them.

It’s not that you open the door, enter the room, spend a few days there, and conclude that the arguments don’t add up to a biblical imperative. Instead, you simply leave the door shut. What’s the point of opening the door if it’s just going to open a whole can of worms with it?

Let’s stick with the multiple services issue for a second, though my point here isn’t the particular issue but the principle, the posture. When you think about trying to combine the 9:00am service with the 11:00am service, all you see is a train wreck. There’s no way your people will go for it.

And who knows—you may be right. But here’s where you may not be right: the fact that such a change would cause a train wreck now does not mean it would always only ever cause a train wreck.

I suspect that some pastors shrink back from even considering arguments that would lead them to alter their church’s basic structures and practices because they can’t see their way through to a happy ending. They may think—or even feel in their gut—that if they embrace the premise, the only conclusion is splitting the church or getting fired.

But of course, “no change” and “instant train wreck” are not your only options. Pastors know better than most that in the Christian life and in the church all growth is imperfect and incremental. If you become convinced that your church should meet as one gathered body, who knows whether the Lord will enable you to lead your church there? Perhaps your role will be to preach on unity, teach on biblical ecclesiology, exhort your members to consider others’ musical preferences more important than their own, and so on, for twenty or thirty years without making a single structural change. Perhaps the entire fruit of your ministry in this particular area will be that the next pastor can lead the church to make a biblical decision once you’re gone.

So take the long view. Don’t ask how much healthier things might get in the next three years; ask how much healthier things might get before your funeral.

And who’s to say change is impossible? Unlike those early disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:2), I trust you’ve heard of the Holy Spirit. You can’t change hearts and minds, but he can.

Pastoring, like politics, is the art of the possible. You can only lead people where they’ll follow you. But pastoring is also, and more fundamentally, the art of the impossible. Raising the spiritually dead. Rescuing people from the dominion of sin. Forging unity out of division and love out of enmity. You can’t do any of this, and yet it’s what you rightly preach and pray for every week.

So apply the same imaginative confidence to church reform that you do to evangelism. Don’t effectively tell God that it’s impossible for his people to keep his Word in this or that area. That’s what the new covenant is for—enabling God’s people keep his Word from the heart.

There are other spiritual issues wrapped up with the pastoral pitfall I’m trying to put my finger on here: trust in the power of God’s Word and the effectual working of his Spirit vs. confidence in the flesh; courage vs. fear of man; sensitive concern for what the sheep can handle shading into self-preserving don’t-rock-the-boat-ism. But I think imagination and its absence deserve a place on this list too.

Imagination draws the line between what one can and can’t conceive. So we could say that an increasingly biblical imagination involves faith expanding your view of the possible. Biblical imagination means making space for God to surprise you. It means letting God’s Word name problems you didn’t know you had and provide solutions you didn’t know you needed.

God isn’t asking you to teleport to the end-goal of a healthy church. Health is his to give, not yours to achieve. Instead, he’s asking you to put one foot in front of the other.

So will you let God’s Word lead you in a new direction even when you can’t see through to the destination? Will you step into the Jordan before you see the waters start piling up? Will you set out, maybe knowing where you’re going, but having no idea how or when you’ll get there?

Will you pastor by faith, not by sight?

Bobby Jamieson

Bobby Jamieson is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Jesus' Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews. You can find him on Twitter at @bobby_jamieson.