As I have talked to church consultants, pastors and leaders, I’ve concluded there is one thing any pastor can do to quickly transform his church, no matter how unhealthy it is.
Many authors have expounded on this turnaround concept, so I can’t claim originality. In fact, the Bible itself prescribes it. But it bears repeating, because the church isn’t listening.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of hearing countless researchers and experts decry the Lord’s institution as ineffective, out of touch with culture, full of pride or antiquated.
The reasons for this epidemic of church sickness are legion: passionless church members, bitter congregants, changing culture, undiscipled believers, weak evangelism, fear of change.
Sin, of course, makes people passionless, bitter, weak or fearful. That’s why the precursor to any turnaround effort must be a core group of praying people. It is fruitless to attempt to lead a church without it: “He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built” (Luke 6:48, NIV).
Church growth principles should be practiced only after building this foundation. Asking Christ to bless his church – which you happen to be leading under his authority – is the first step to building it up.
There are many excellent prayer resources. Two recent books I recommend are Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey, and A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World by Paul Miller. I’m still reading the latter, and am finding its message refreshing. Miller says we should just talk to God without worrying about getting the words right.
If you don’t focus on prayer, you might as well close your doors. But if you don’t apply the following concept, the life of your church may still be dim.
This panacea practice is simply leadership.
Leaders of countless churches, parachurches and Christian businesses fail to perform basic leadership practices. I cringe at the weak leadership in so many organizations that are seeking to bring glory to God. Where is the excellence the Lord desires?
I understand what it’s like to learn leadership on the job. It is an ongoing process as we make mistakes, observe others, read books, persevere through difficult times, and take notes when things work.
But there are so many church leaders (not just pastors) who act as if they can’t change and learn. Maybe they feel they’re too set in their ways to learn new tricks, or they think their wisdom is supreme, and everyone needs to just listen.
No matter how old we are, we need to learn. Why? Because we forget. I go back through books like Good to Great to peruse the parts I highlighted, often finding something new to try. I’m surprised how a leadership nugget I’d read many times is applicable in a completely new way. Circumstances change. We change, too.
Leadership excellence is the bricks and mortar of a church. Without it, we have no structural integrity. When the torrent comes, it crumbles down to the foundation.
It is leadership that casts vision and inspires evangelism; leadership that boldly preaches the truth in the face of sin and criticism. It is lay leadership that multiplies the church’s mission and takes pressure off the pastor.
Leadership not only keeps up with culture, it stays ahead of it. It links the mission of the church to the culture of the world.
Even though it does all these great things, church leaders all over the U.S. discount its power. For example, if the community is shrinking around a church, and the church’s numbers are dwindling, the average pastor will focus on how to keep existing members happy and spend some time inviting new people to come.
But decline will usually continue. A true leader will quickly institute change – even if it requires moving to a new location or merging with another congregation – in order to keep the church alive and vibrant. That’s risky and invites criticism, but it’s leadership.
Most pastors have heard the basics of leadership. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the daily ministry grind and forget to practice them. Such pastors can’t look past the immediate needs of their flock, often because there’s no one else to meet those needs.
Chronically ineffective leaders cannot stop doing things they know are wrong or inefficient. They say with Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15, NIV).
Paul struggled with personal inertia, like I do. It’s much easier to stay still in our old ways than to do new things. But according to James, when we don’t do the hard things that are necessary, we are actually sinning: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins” (James 4:17, NIV).
Many quality conferences, church consultants and authors teach leadership. An army of ministry coaches work with pastors across the country. As a result, we have tens of thousands of pastoral heads that are filled with leadership knowledge.
Even so, the average church still declines.
James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” I pray that you will be one that leads a church out of a quagmire, whether you are a pastor, consultant or other leader. Pray first – and often – then hurry up and lead!
Your followers are waiting.
Tom Harper is president of the Society for Church Consulting and publisher of www.ChurchCentral.com, a church leadership blog. He is also president of NetWorld Alliance, a business-to-business publisher and Church Central’s parent. He twitters on leadership issues at @TomRHarper.