I recently completed my first six months of my first pastorate in a position that would probably be characterized by the experts as a “revitalization effort.” I had done my research. I had read up on church revitalization, what to do in your first six months, how to shape gospel-centered ministries, etc. But of all the thoughts, plans, etc. I brought with me into this position, there are three points that I would give to others that I’ve learned from my first season of my pastorate: In the next three posts we’ll tackle each part of this at a time.
Don’t do church, lead your people and engage your community.
Don’t do church
Before I came to this position I would often rail against the “Field of Dreams” ministry plan; you know the one: “If you build it, they will come.” It was clear to me that this was the wrong agenda, focusing on the buildings, the programs, the atmosphere, the show!
But the more our worship pastor and I dug into our vision, plans, and the way we were leading our people, the more we found out we were operating with that very mindset! It may look different than the stereotypes I would rail against, but the same root issue was at play.
In my example, I came in to this pastorate thinking the most important things I could do as a pastor would be to increase the excellence of the sermon, the music, and the aesthetics. If I could just adjust the externals to better engage our community with excellence, the people would follow along. The lobby area needed a face lift, the bulletin needed modernizing, the graphics should be better, the stage set up and instruments updating, and a name change to be more relevant.
In short, I wanted to do church and let that trickle down to my people.
But the problem is that if you don’t change hearts, no matter what the service or your building looks like, the culture will be the same. We all have preferences for how the church building should look, the corporate worship should go, the ministry makeup should be, etc. Maybe your preferences are better than the “old-fashioned” or “traditional” preferences of the church you’re now the pastor. But remember, they are just preferences. One is not morally superior to the other. And before you start changing all of the entrenched preferences of your church, ask yourself: “Have I changed hearts so my people see this as a good and helpful change?”
One of our wise and older leaders (I call him our elder statesman) once told me about a very conservative church where he served as an elder that had long stood firm against Christmas decorations in the church building. However, as the denomination began to loosen up, the leadership decided to put up the most minimal decorations for the first time—wreathes on the doors. They put them up on a Tuesday, and by Wednesday service they were all gone. A church member had come and taken them all down.
You may be up on all of the gospel-contextualization books out there and have a plan as to how to craft the worship experience and even look of a church building to best facilitate gospel witness to your community. But let me tell you, if you go in and try to “do church” without changing hearts, church members are going to come along behind you and take down your wreathes.