Why You Can’t Change Your Church (Part 1 of 4)

Article
08.22.2014

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.

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