Be a Tortoise, not a Hare

Article
10.27.2011

You know the classic fable: The cocky rabbit challenges the other animals to a race. The tortoise accepts, much to the hare’s bemusement. The race begins, and the rabbit dashes ahead—so far ahead, in fact, that he has time to nap. But while the hare sleeps, the tortoise faithfully plods on and crosses the finish line first in a dramatic upset. The moral of the story: Slow and steady wins the race.

Perhaps seminaries should offer a class in the exegesis of Aesop. Too often, pastors come to a new congregation, quickly see the need for revitalization, and shoot off at a hare’s pace to turn the church around. Within a few years, serious problems emerge. And the race ends prematurely with a conflicted congregation and a wounded pastor who’s ready to drop out of the ministry.

Young pastors in particular can fall prey to the dangers of a rapid reform. This is partially because they are often long on energy and idealism and short on experience, but it’s also because young pastors and declining churches seem to find each other. A struggling church says it wants “new energy” and “more young folks” and so is willing to take a chance on a younger man. And the young pastor is eager for that first job and up for a challenge. And so the freshly-minted minister arrives and the race begins at a furious pace.

FOUR CHURCH REFORM RABBITS

Rabbits come in many sub-species. That is, there are many ways to rush reformation and renewal in a local church to the detriment of congregation and pastor. Consider four archetypal ways that we pastors move too quickly in our efforts to bring needed change to our churches:

The Purist

The Purist has strong theological convictions. He has been blessed with a clear biblical vision for church life and practice. He runs straight and true without deviating from the course.

Unfortunately, he moves too fast for the congregation. In the first six months he proposes a new doctrinal statement, a constitutional change to adopt elders, and a radical pruning of the membership rolls. Ironically, in his zeal for a faithful theology of the church he runs roughshod over the actual people of the church. He thunders out the doctrines of grace each Sunday, but fails to show his people the patient grace of God in his dealings with them.

This pastor can get fired fast. And, sadly, he can go away as a theological martyr in his own mind, blind to his faults. More sadly still, that church has now been inoculated against the biblical reformation it desperately needs.

The Pragmatist

The opposite extreme from the Purist, the Pragmatist will do “whatever works” to get people into the church and keep them there. Nothing is out of bounds so long as it grows the church and doesn’t involve blatant immorality or obvious heresy. A charismatic and talented pragmatist can grow a church from 50 to 500 in short order with a savvy blend of humor, technology, leadership, and style.

The Pragmatist may crack the code of how to rapidly raise church attendance, giving all appearances of revitalization. But important questions remain: Are people truly being converted by the gospel, repenting of sins and trusting in Christ? Or are people merely being efficiently “churched?” Is this pastor making disciples of Jesus, or just fans of the latest “it” church? Is he cultivating a spiritual redwood, which grows slowly but reaches majestic stature? Or is he merely growing a rose, which blooms today but fades tomorrow?

Sadly, the more effectively and rapidly one can raise church attendance, the less likely anyone is to question the methods theologically. Numbers bewitch us.

The Copycat 

The Copycat shaves time by taking a short-cut: he merely replicates another church’s philosophy, programs, and structure in his own congregation. Why reinvent the wheel? Why not just buy the book, attend the conference, order the kit, and download the sermons from another successful church?

The Copycat sounds like the Pragmatist, and at one level he is. But the Purist can fall into this temptation, too. Reformed Copycats have their hero pastors and churches as well.

Learning from other church models isn’t wrong. In fact, Scripture commands us to follow the godly examples of others (1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:17), and the apostle Paul even holds up an entire local church as a model for other believers (1 Thess.1:7). However, we pastors become Copycats when we impose another church’s model without lovingly considering the unique character, history, and culture of our congregation. We also err as Copycats when we fail to assess our favored model in light of biblical teaching on the local church.

Faithfully exegeting your church and your Bible is tortoise-work. It can’t be done overnight.

The Narcissist

This final hare is perhaps the most dangerous. The Narcissist views church ministry through the lens of his own personal narrative. He sees congregational renewal and reform as the stage for acting out a self-centered script.

Maybe he dreams of being the guy who helps the stodgy traditional church become cutting edge. Or perhaps he fancies himself an activist who confronts the complacent suburban church about engaging the poor. Or maybe in his mind he’s the reincarnation of Luther looking for a doctrinally wobbly church to which he can nail his 95 theses. Or maybe he simply sees himself speaking to thousands, and wants to transform his congregation into that mega church. It’s the American dream, pastoral edition.

Such delusions of grandeur tend to breed impatient pastors. When we’re full of ourselves, we interpret ministry setbacks as personal failures, and pushback from church members as personal threats. We race like driven men when it’s all about us.

GRAB YOUR SHELL

And then there’s the tortoise. While the rabbits tear off, he plods along faithfully.

The tortoise strives for renewal through a steady rhythm of weekly expository preaching, letting the Word do its transformative work. He commits significant time to prayer, calling on God to revitalize. He goes slow enough to know and listen to church members, understanding that you cannot truly reform what you do not love. He has an overarching confidence in God’s sovereignty to bring about the needed change, so that setbacks roll off him like rain off a shell. If God wills, the tortoise is open to spending a career in one church. His personal narrative is simple: I am just a servant of Jesus.

It’s amazing how far a tortoise can go.

Every church needs renewal. The church reformed is always reforming. So let us strive for renewal in a way that puts the spotlight on God’s Word, God’s timing, and the gospel’s power, rather than our own creativity, know-how, and style. Then when people ask how we turned our church around, we won’t be flexing our own muscular rabbit legs. Instead we will be able to say with all sincerity, “The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

By:
Jeramie Rinne

Jeramie Rinne is an author and the senior pastor of Evangelical Community Church of Abu Dhabi in the UAE.