By Joe McKeever
“I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
I received a note from a young pastor in another state, along with his resume’. He said, “I’d be interested in coming to your city to pastor. However, I do not want to waste my time on a congregation of self-focused, carnal and complacent church members. I feel led to pastor a church poised for growth, where the people want to reach the lost for Jesus.”
I wrote back, “That would be nice. But if we ever have such a church, you’ll have to get in line, friend. Every pastor in the country will be clamoring to go there.”
It would be nice to serve a church made up of spiritually mature and responsive believers. It would be heavenly not to have to lead troublesome business meetings where the deacons want to go one direction, the personnel committee another, and the congregation wanting nothing to do with either.
Most churches I know are not “poised for growth,” but are dealing with issues of one kind or other.
That’s why God has to “call” pastors to these churches. No one knowing what he is doing would voluntarily go to any of them.
A church up the highway is introverted but should be directed outwardly. A church across town is self-centered and as pastor you think it should be focused heavenward and toward people. The church down the road is suffering from an inferiority complex or it’s frightened by all the change taking place around it or the dwindling membership has panicked the few remaining leaders, and they are cutting their losses, throwing up fences, and turning the Lord’s church into a fortress where they can hide from life.
Changing the outlook and atmosphere in a church is your task. And it is a huge one.
But your church is going to die if you don’t.
The easiest thing to do is bury a dying church and start all over. And, let’s be honest here, sometimes that has to be done. But not always.
As a God-called shepherd, you didn’t enter the ministry because it would be easy. He has not sent you to do easy things. Since the Lord appointed you as pastor of this church and the congregation agreed that He was indeed doing that, you feel duty-bound to do all in your power (and beyond!) to save the church. And that means turning it around.
How to do that is the question.
Good news: This ‘changing of church culture’ happens all the time. It’s not as rare as you might think.
Put simply: you can do this.
A new pastor arrives and sees a sleeping congregation, Bibles with cobwebs from disuse, an underfunded program, and a community in dire need of the Gospel. Often, the pastor will note that the building could use a coat of paint, the grounds could be made more attractive, and the community is unaware the church is even there. In many cases, the membership has been preached at and harangued and made to feel guilty about what they are not doing by a succession of previous pastors, but no one has actually led them to become salt and light in that community.
So, you, the new pastor set out to do just that.
Here’s how a pastor can change the culture of a church.
1) Through heartfelt, strong prayer of faith. Pray God will send the people He wants to this church, keep away any He does not want, and remove anyone He wants out. Pray the Lord will show you where to start, what to do, and give you the love and courage to do it. Pray the Lord will lead you to the messages He wants preached and restrain you from doing anything in the flesh (meaning, out of immaturity or impatience or selfishness).
2) Through Holy Spirit-inspired preaching to the membership. This will be preaching that exalts Jesus, loves the people, and keeps the pressure on to change more and more into the likeness of Jesus. This preaching comes right out of the Word of God and carries the authority of Heaven because it is his message.
3) Encourage the members who are getting it right. Brag on them individually and with personal notes. Occasionally, as the Lord lays it on your heart, have a member who is doing a significant ministry give a testimony or interview.
4) Model the behavior you are wanting to see in the congregation. Be the best greeter your church has. Circulate for a half hour before and after the worship service, greeting people, and doing the kind of quick ministry (a hug here, a kind word there, a prayer with this one, and a word of encouragement to that one) God gives you. As the mood setter for the congregation, your attitude and demeanor will eventually be that of your people. Be a strong contributor, a generous giver, a prayer warrior, a sweet-spirited encourager.
5) Keep with the program. Stay the course. Turning around a battleship takes time.
6) Be patient with your people. They did not get the way they are now overnight and will not give up those hurtful ways easily.
When I began trying to change the redneck “white only” culture of a church in the Mississippi Delta in the racially heated decade of the 1960s, a lay leader reminded me that for nine years the previous pastor had repeatedly hammered to the congregation that segregation was God’s way. “You can change them,” he said, “but you’re going to need to be patient.” A good word.
Some quick plans for certain kinds of churches…
1) THE CHURCH WITH THE INFERIORITY COMPLEX.
If your church plateau’ed in attendance a generation ago and it’s just sitting there, doing little and expecting even less, in addition to the above activities (prayer, preaching, encouragement, etc), you will want to…
–Lead the leadership to set larger goals. The increments will be small at first, and that’s to be expected. In Mark 3, Jesus told the man with the withered arm, “Stretch forth your hand!” That was the very thing the fellow could not do, but it was also the area where Jesus was about to perform a miracle. Do not be afraid to ask your people to stretch.
–Celebrate each new victory, no matter how small. Infuse the services with joy.
–In place of exhorting your members to get into their neighborhood with the gospel, to invite neighbors to church, do it yourself. (We pastors are great at harassing our people about witnessing when we are doing nothing that remotely resembles sharing our faith.) If your church is small, you can do all the visitation in the neighborhoods yourself. (In any church, the best “caller” is the pastor. Take advantage of that.)
If you need an opening with neighbors, simply introduce yourself as the pastor of your church and say, “I would like to know if our church is being a good neighbor to you.” See what happens.
–If you are a new pastor, before visiting outsiders, call on all your members. In most cases, you will not need to schedule appointments, but do quick visits at the front door. If they invite you in, of course, accept their hospitality. For many, it will be their first time ever to have a pastor in their home. Get into several homes every week and your attendance will quickly show the evidence of your faithfulness.
2. THE CHURCH WITH AN “OUR RACE ONLY” MENTALITY.
Here and there we still have Christian churches where a love for all mankind has not reached. I recall some friends from Mississippi tellling me of a ministry trip they made to Alaska once where the pastor there was criticizing white Southerners for excluding blacks from their churches. This same church had a policy of excluding Eskimoes from their services. Someone once said that if overnight, all skin color was changed to the same shade, by nightfall mankind would have found some other basis for prejudice.
–Preach the Word.
–Talk to your leadership in small groups, sounding them out, finding out where they stand, getting their counsel on how to proceed.
–As God leads, bring in outstanding preachers from “that other race”–whatever it is!–to share God’s word. At this moment, the Lord is using Dr. Fred Luter, pastor of our Franklin Avenue Baptist Church here in New Orleans, to preach in pulpits across this land that have never had an African-American do this. Being president of the denomination gets one into some interesting places. (smiley-face goes here)
–If your church has racial extremists in its membership, deal with them one to one. Challenge their preconceptions, but do so gently and lovingly.
–Bring in a great choir from “one of those other churches.” Even if a few members boycott the meeting, those who come and are blessed will drown them out with their praise.
–Keep at it. Be faithful.
3. THE CHURCH WITH THE CLIQUE-ISH CULTURE.
Members of this church can trace their lineage back to the founders. Several families have dominated the church for generations. Everyone is intermarried. Pastors are teasingly warned to tread softly because everyone is related to each other. (Pastors are wise to pay attention to these cautions.)
–Love them all. Appreciate the heritage of this church. Learn all you can about its history from reading newspaper clippings in some ancient file, from listening to the older members, and such. Occasionally refer to some incident in “our past” which makes your point.
–Preach the word, specially the “love thy neighbor as thyself.” You might want to drop back to Leviticus 19 where the Lord repeatedly tells Israel to “love the stranger in your gates because you were once strangers in Egypt.”
–When you find church members with a heart for reaching people for the Lord, encourage them to become visitor-friendly and to reach out to newcomers, introducing them around. Make sure the church bulletin uses full names and gives the address of meetings. (A common mistake of small introverted churches is to announce: “The men of our church will be meeting at Tom’s house this Tuesday night. You all know what to bring.” Such an announcement has just excluded those who have no idea who Tom is, where he lives, what’s going on there or what to bring.)
–Pray the Lord will send a few strong newcomers who will jump right in and patiently (and persistently and gently, etc etc!) become active in the congregation, even if they have to endure a few barbs from cliqueish members who do not want new people
–Be patient and persistent. If your church begins reaching new people, a few people will criticize you and say how they miss “how things were before.” Do not let this deter or distract you.
–Keep preaching Matthew 16:18. Tell your people repeatedly, “This is the Lord’s church and He will build it. Our only question is ‘Lord, what will you have us to do?’”
4. THE CHURCH THAT LOVES A GOOD FIGHT.
The membership seems not to be able to resolve anything without arguing and conducting knock-down drag-out business meetings.
–Preach Acts 6:1-7 repeatedly, particularly with small groups of your leaders, emphasizing that some conflict is normal, but there are ways of resolving differences so effectively that the watching world is drawn in by our love rather than driven away.
–Model the kind of behavior you want to see in your people, specifically an appreciation for other points of view than your own. Ephesians 5:21 calls for God’s people to “submit to one another,” a practice that can stop dissension dead in its tracks.
–Hold up Luke 6:27-35 as the standard of love. The four most basic acts of love are found here, actions we do to everyone we care about, even our worst enemies: do good works for people, bless them (good words), pray for them, and give to them.
–Celebrate every time the church resolves an issue peacefully.
5. THE CHURCH WHICH RUNS OFF PASTORS EVERY FEW YEARS
–Make up your mind that you also may be a victim of this practice, so do not be devastated if the pattern holds for you and after three years (or two or four), a little delegation visits your office to inform you they’re ready for you to move on. Don’t automatically agree to this, however. You should have been here long enough by now to know whether the problem is that “small group” which runs preachers off or if the entire congregation is this way. If the former, you can do a church a great favor by determining to stay.
–A pastor who was visited by such a group told them, “I know that you have done this with every pastor you’ve had after about 24 months each. But you folks are just going to have to learn to love me. I’m not going anywhere.” He stayed 12 years.
–Get counsel from people who know the church well. Build a cadre of prayer warriors to intercede for you and the church. Keep them informed, but demand confidentiality.
–If worse comes to worse and you are about to become a victim of this mentality, try to buy time for yourself by stressing that moving to another church takes at least six months. Through all of this, do nothing that is not Spirit-led. Stay close to the Lord, on your knees and in His word.
Keep reminding yourself, “This is the Lord’s church. He knew all of this when He sent me here. Jesus is Lord.” And then, leave it with Him and get some rest at night.
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.