Revitalised churches build on growth, openness and mission
We are all familiar with the joke about how many Presbyterians it takes to change a light bulb. (31 – one to change it, and five six-member committees to review the idea first.) We don’t like change very much do we?
Maybe “growth” is a better word than “change” for us Presbyterians. It’s less scary. Living things grow, and growth means change. As John Henry Newman put it, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” If we want to see our churches grow then we need to be open to change. The Christian life begins with a radical change which we call conversion, and it triggers off a process of continuous change – Paul describes it in Colossians 2:6-7: “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” That’s an interesting mix of metaphors: to be rooted in Christ (and therefore stable) and also built up in Him (and therefore changing).
Maybe that’s the key to handling change, whether in our own personal lives or in our churches. You and I will best cope with change when our identity is tied to Christ. If you are established in Him, deeply rooted in Him, secure in your relationship with Him. then you can respond to change with faith, not fear. This is why the key factor in church revitalisation has to be the regular preaching of the gospel. Not preaching about the gospel but preaching the gospel to the hearts of our people so that they find their security in Jesus and not in church structures.
What needs changing? Not the message, that’s for sure! But maybe our methods need to be overhauled. In 1 Corinthians 9 the Apostle Paul is unbending about the message. “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel!” But he bends over backwards to get that message out to all kinds of different people: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
“The Christian life begins with a radical change which we call conversion, and it triggers off a process of continuous change.”
Scripture allows considerable room for manoeuvre. Some churches and individuals are faithful, but not very flexible: “Just be faithful brother! God will do the rest.” And as the world around us changes, we just circle the wagons into tighter and tighter circles. We are evangelical but there’s not much evangelism going on. On the other hand, there are others who are culturally very relevant, but they have forgotten why they need to be.
The tragedy today is that we can be evangelical without being evangelistic or we can be very evangelistic but no longer evangelical. We are to be both evangelical and evangelistic, faithful and flexible, unbending about the truth, but bending over backwards to get the truth out there.
I think it’s fair to say that many of our churches are stuck in maintenance mode. Mission comes very low down on the agenda. If it’s there at all, it will be under AOB (any other business) rather than matters arising. Indeed I think we would have to say that for some of us, mission doesn’t get on the agenda at all, not even under apologies for absence. How are you going to change that? Where do you start? How do you take your current ministry and transform it into an outward-looking, well-organised evangelistic powerhouse? How can we organise our churches to reach as many people as possible with the gospel?
We need to mobilise our people, free them up from filling rosters and serving on committees, to make friends of those who are not yet believers. In any church there will be a whole array of different people, different personalities, different temperaments. We are not all the same. And we need to free up people to be themselves. That’s why rugby is the greatest sport of all. You need the fat and the thin and the tall and the short to play rugby, don’t you? You can’t play rugby with one body shape. You need a variety for the team to play well. And so it is in our churches.
“Many of our churches are stuck in maintenance mode. Mission comes very low down on the agenda.”
Evangelism is a team sport – it’s a “we” mentality not a “me” mentality. And we do this together. And when we do it together it’s pleasurable. Think about it: who have you got on your team of evangelists? Who do you have in your church family? Who are you? How has God wired you? What position can you play in this team? Are you a direct person, like Peter who just tells it as it is? Or do you like a good discussion like Paul – are you good at answering people’s questions? Are you an inviter like Andrew? Have you got a testimony to tell, like the man born blind? Are you the kind of person who just loves doing things for people, like Dorcas? Are you an encourager of others, like Barnabas, who just loves to get alongside people? All these people will be in your church. If you’re a pastor your task is to mobilise them to bring the gospel to your community. And it will happen naturally. There is no real exhortation in the New Testament for Christians to evangelise, they just did it.
Once a snail was mugged by a tortoise. When asked by the police to report the incident, the snail had considerable difficulty: “It all happened so quickly,” he said. For some of us it doesn’t happen quickly enough but most people need time to adjust to change. Change takes time – and it requires careful management. Nick Mercer suggests that sudden change is “a bit like having a baby without being pregnant for nine months”. The leaders have spent many hours and days in discussion, in the gestation of an idea. Then the “baby” is suddenly presented at a church meeting, which has 45 minutes to make up its mind! No wonder there are so many unhappy births. The congregation, he says, must share in the pregnancy if it is to be a healthy baby.
For change to happen, good clear communication is essential in both directions. It involves listening and receiving feedback from everyone involved. Aim for consensus. Aim for unity. Aim to bring everyone to a common mind regarding what you are seeking to achieve. For this to happen, discussion is needed at all levels; in personal conversations, in home groups, at church meetings, through literature, over meals, in prayer. People need to express their fears, their uncertainties and bring them out into the open and know that they are being heard.
And lead – be clear about where you are trying to go. Set the direction from the pulpit and in the prayer meeting. That’s how Christ’s Kingdom advances, as we give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. Abraham Lincoln’s administration was once criticised for stumbling along. The President’s reply was that while this may be true “we are stumbling in the right direction”. Paul Beasley Murray has a helpful illustration: “Our leadership is not to be compared with the autopilot of a jumbo jet. It is much more like the experience of tacking in sailing; making frequent movements in order to pick up the wind and then make headway.” We can’t control the wind but we can set the sail.
David Jones is the pastor at Ann St Presbyterian Church in Brisbane