The Predicament of Many Ministers
Every minister I know would like to change some aspect of his church’s beliefs. Perhaps the congregation needs to become more missional and evangelistic. Or it needs to have a greater sense of the sovereignty of God. Maybe the congregation needs to understand the Biblical doctrine of grace and banish legalism from its midst.
Or perhaps there are other problems. Volunteers are not organized. Small groups are not effective. The church’s finances are not overseen well.
And so, with these problems looming over a church and the work of God being impeded, a minister is driven to throw himself against the rusty mechanisms of the church. He hopes to move the church toward a more Biblical doctrines and more effective organization. He desires the church to be energized by God’s Spirit and for this congregation to advance the kingdom of God in this world.
In my short time in ministry, I’ve had some limited experience with this. But what I want to write about is not my experiences, but the experiences of other ministers that I know of.
Many ministers have tried to change their churches beliefs, visions, values, and administrative structures. The sad truth is that many ministers end up burnt out from this. They do not have much success in their endeavors, and it feels like swimming against the current. The church does not take much interest in their new ideas. The few people that do take interest end up forgetting about it as they get distracted with other projects or discouraged with the lack of success in the current project.
Or worse: some ministers get fired from the backlash over their attempt to change a church’s beliefs or administrative structure. People are offended that they would attack age-old beliefs or traditional ways of doing “church”. A significant group in the congregation come to oppose the minister. Often this group is made up of the people in power at the church, because it is their activities and beliefs that are most affected by change. If you do away with the traditional Vacation Bible School program, then the members who planned and ran that program are threatened by your change.
Eventually, this group’s opposition is so strong and fierce that the minister is fired. Or perhaps he leaves because the hostile environment is not conducive to his work or his family. Either way, the minister is gone.
So ministers end up burning out, walking out, or being kicked out. All because they wanted to change the congregation for the better.
I want to leave aside the possibility that the minister’s changes are misguided, the beliefs he is championing are unscriptural, or the new programs he has designed are lackluster. This is probably a frequent cause of his problems. But it is not what I want to focus on (although I will address it briefly later).
Look at the position the minister is in. First, the church has real problems, whether doctrinal or administrative. Second, the minister’s attempts to change them will lead to him burning out, quitting, or being fired.
This is a difficult problem, surely one that has robbed many ministers of the joy of their work. What is one to do about it?
Two Things I’ve Noticed
I am still a very young and inexperienced. But here’s two things that I’ve noticed:
First, many congregations are not held captive by the Word of God. The Bible is part of the background tradition, perhaps an integral part of their background traditions. But the average person in the pew is not held captive by the Word of God. They do not submit their lives to it. They do not see it as authoritative and helpful. They do not turn to the Word of God for guidance, because they ultimately do not regard it as true and helpful regarding their specific circumstances.
The Word of God should convict Christians and motivate them for action. When Christians are held captive by the Word of God, they are moved to do the things that the Bible commands and encourages.
Second, sometimes ministers do not push doctrines or programs (especially programs) that are a clear outflowing of the Bible’s teachings. As ministers, especially young or new ministers, our authority is tied up with the authority of the Biblical message. Our visions and beliefs are credible and authoritative insofar as they flow from the Bible. What we want with our visions and our programs is that they grab hold of our congregation. The congregation finds them compelling and exciting.
Take small groups as an example. We can speculate about the benefits small groups will have for our church. We can estimate what type of growth our church would have if we had small groups. We can give examples of other churches that had success with our programs.
But this doesn’t guarantee that the church will like small groups. Perhaps they’ve had a failed attempt at them in the past, so all of the projections for small groups sound like wishful thinking to them.
What if, though, the church members had a deep respect for the Bible and submitted their lives to it guide? What if the minister showed the need for community, fellowship, and accountability in the Bible, and then explained how small groups effectively meet those needs? Maybe it would still go poorly, but it seems to me that one’s chances are better.
The Cornerstone of Change
If I am right, then the cornerstone of change in a church is its being held captive by the Word of God. Then the ministers can present plans, visions, and doctrines that flow from the Word of God.
The reason this is interesting to me is that it is very rare that ministers aim at the first goal. I’ve talked to dozens of ministers about their plans in their ministries, and I’ve developed plans for my own ministry. But I’ve never met a minister whose first goal in his church is to create a church that is held captive by the Word of God. I’ve never heard that stated as an explicit goal. Perhaps we don’t see its importance.
Or maybe ministers do not set that as a goal because we do not even know what action steps we can take to achieve that goal. More on that in the next post.
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