A few years ago, Gordon MacDonald wrote a fictional account, based in fact, of a church that was changing.
The book's title says it clearly, Who Stole My Church? What to Do When the Church You Loves Tries to Enter the 21st Century.
Here's how the Preface (non-fiction) begins. . .
The title of this book, Who Stole My Church?, springs from a conversation a few years ago with a distraught man who felt betrayed by the church he had invested in for most of his adult years. From his perpective everything had changed - overnight, he said - into something that made him feel like a stranger in the place he'd always thought of as his spiritual home.
I listened to him describe what sounded like ecclesiastical carnage. Programs had been dumped, traditional music trashed, preaching styles and topics revolutionized, symbols of reverence (appropriate clothing, crosses, communion tables, and pulpits come to mind) thrust aside.
His anguish (and his anger) began with a young pastor who had been appointed with a challenge from the church's leadership to "stir things up with a new vision." His mandate: make the church grow like the Willow Creeks, the Saddlebacks, the Mars Hills, and all the other megachurches that have appeared during the last decade.
According to my friend, most of the church members - in particular, the older generation - had no idea what they were getting themselves into when all the growth talk began. Who would protest against, he asked, the idea of finding fresh ways to evangelize the unchurched? But what people expected was merely a fresh voice in the pulpit and a program or two imported from more successful churches.
Here's what I heard him saying. What he and his fellow church members had not anticipated was a total shift in the church's culture, a reinvention (a favorite word of mine) of ways to love God and serve people. What they did not see coming was a reshuffling of the church's priorities, so that lost and broken people rather than found and supposedly fixed people became the primary target audience. In summary: virtually everything in the life of their church under new leadership became focused on reaching people who were not yet there.
It was during this part of the conversation that my lunch partner finally said, "Our church has been stolen out form under us. It's been hijacked." His solution to the problem? To leave and search for another church that "appreciated" the older and better church ways his generation was familiar and comfortable with.
As I recall the conversation, my friend was less than delighted when he discovered that I wasn't completely sympathetic to his cause. I tried to find a kind way to say, "Get used to it," but I wasn't very successful."
My parting comment that day was something like this: "You need to think about the fact that any church that has not turned its face toward the younger generation and the new challenges of reaching unchurched people in this world will simply cease to exist. We're not talking about decades - we're talking about years."
What is unfortunate is that the account shared by MacDonald in the Preface to his book is not fiction and has been replicated over and again in churches throughout our nation.
There are numerous churches in the city where I serve that have experienced the very same challenges. Some have called pastors, over and again, seeking to find the right fit. Unfortunately, some of these churches have now been tagged "Pastor Killers" based on the reality that they have left many wounded shepherds in their wake. Many of these wounded warriors have either stepped out of ministry or strongly contemplated it.
Granted, there are some pastors (and friends of mine) who have sought to lead their church through needed change too quickly. You just cannot turn a ship on a dime. Therefore, incremental change is needed with continued vision-casting by the pastor and leaders reminding the church of the bigger picture. All change must be done not based on a model of the latest megachurch, but solely on the discerned will of God for said congregation.
Pastors easily slide toward egotism. It's the nature of the calling, I guess, partnered with personality traits, most often High "D" or "I" categorizations on the DISC profile along with the stress of the role. No excuses here, just an acknowledgement of reality. Therefore, let me be clear that God does not honor prideful egos, whether from the pulpit or the pew (or in today's vernacular - from the tall table or the cushioned chairs).
I have yet to meet a pastor called to lead an established, or legacy, church through transition who has not been accused of wrong-doing. In most cases, the accusations stem from the loss of perceived sacred cows within the church.
Often the frustrations come from a perceived shift of focus from self, a specific demographic, or program or even worship style.
The church I have been called to serve is a wonderful one because of the godly people here and a clear focus on Jesus Christ. As I think back over the previous twenty-one years, I am encouraged by all that God has done. In fact, just contemplating the miracles of new life, Kingdom focus and celebrations of victory lead to a personal worship service themed by "Thank You" to our God.
The work done prior to my leadership was ground-breaking for a church solidly and proudly (unfortunately) inwardly-focused. As we moved through the early years of the 21st century, it became clear a shift was needed. Not everyone understood or believed this, but I applaud and thank previous leadership for not being satisfied with status quo.
It is clear today that if the shift from inward-only ministry had not occured, or at least begun to occur in the early 2000s, this church would be seeking a merger with a church on more solid ground financially and likely would be seeking ways to keep the doors open here. This is not a dystopian, doom and gloom statement, but one based on what we have seen occur in our own county and in churches in Jacksonville.
Thankfully, we are a church who became like the men of Issachar, who "knew the times" and sought to impact the world God has placed us for His glory.
This has meant change. It's not been dramatic. It's been slow. As best we could, we have sought to keep everyone on the boat while making the turn. Perhaps we have not always been successful in that, and for that I am sorry. However, I cannot and will not apologize for leading a church into the culture of lostness so that we may fulfill our Great Commission, push back the darkness, engage the lost and make disciples.
Yes, I've been accused of hijacking this church. It hurts when the accusations come, because. . .well, I'm human and those arrows always seem to penetrate areas thought impervious to pain.
While I didn't eat lunch with the same friend that Gordon MacDonald did, I too have had a discourse with a friend as well. This statement was then shared, "If you want to dedicate your life to church planting, and missional work, that is very commendable, but if that is your choice, go to work with the Convention and let us have our church back."
I responded that my life is dedicated not to the church, not church planting, not a program or event, but to God alone. He rescued me. He gave me life through Jesus Christ. He called me. Therefore, He's the center and main character in my story. In fact, "my" story is not about me. It's His story and I'm blessed to be invited into it.
Regarding missional work, that's a misnomer, I fear. The reality is that it is impossible for a true church or follower of Christ to be anything but missional. It's not a fad or descriptor of process, but a characteristic of a disciple.
As for the Convention. I've not been called by God to serve in that capacity at this time in my life. Therefore, to go work for the Convention (either SBC or Florida Baptist Convention) apart from a calling would do a disservice to this church, my family and all churches within our denomination.
Then, the kicker "Let us have our church back." I found it interesting that this came from a friend who has been a member of this church about ten years less than I have. Most likely, he's echoing others. I pray it's a quiet minority. Here's why - when a church slips into believing it's "my church" or "our church" God may just allow that to happen.
Believe me, you don't want a church to own. You don't want a church that is identified as "yours." Christians do not own a church. Christians are the church. The ownership is based solely on the one who has paid the price - God alone.
So, be careful to ask for "your church back." Back from whom, God? We do not wish God to remove his lampstand from our presence.
Though my answer was thought out and carefully worded, I'm not sure it swayed him. For that reason, I grieve.
My Recommendations for Other Pastors
For other pastors who face these situations, seek counsel and pray intently. Be prepared to admit poor leadership and vision casting when it's apparent. No one is perfect and leadership is a tenuous thing. Be holy. Be humble. Be caring. Be loving.
Pastor the full church (yes, I'm using the word "pastor" as a verb) from preschool to senior adult and every demographic within. Develop lead teams, deacons and ministers to come along side to aid in this. Keep the vision clear. Stay focused and remember the big picture.
But, don't ever apologize for doing the will of God.
How appropriate that Joe McKeever (a 74 year old pastor) wrote this blog post this past week. Take a moment and read this and respect the wisdom of the ages from a seasoned man of God - "Neckties and Drum Sets: Things We Should Get Over."