Thursday, July 14, 2022

A Change Is Gonna Come

Umm ... not effective?

So sang Sam Cooke.

I guess he’d know. He was writing his soulful anthems back in the ’50s and early ’60s in places like Mississippi and Chicago — not the easiest places for a young person of his particular shade of skin to be. But things were changing then, and in retrospect, those who didn’t know they were changing and who thought they could keep things the way they were forever were just spitting into the wind.

Yes, change is gonna come. And you can’t change that. You’ve just got to be ready and react smartly when it does.

Do It Backwards

Now, last week I promised to make some practical suggestions about effectively and scripturally managing change in your local church.

Here’s your first move: do it backwards. Don’t start with where your church is right now, or what you think needs change, or even what you feel you want to change. That’s how bad, destructive change often comes in. Don’t start where you are: start where you want to end up.

Start with the outcome. You need to have a definite goal in mind. But note that this goal must not come from some self-willed “vision” or some clever innovation of your own. It must be one of the specific objectives that we find in scripture. The goal must be the Lord’s goal, not our own.

1/ Setting Priorities

Here’s what you do first. Start with the simple things that contribute to God’s main goals.

What are those? You probably have some ideas already, but don’t just rush ahead. Go back to scripture and look: what does God say are HIS goals? You’re likely to end up with a list — things like “increasing maturity for all Christians”, “more heartfelt worship”, “increased generosity to the work of the Lord”, and “more effective personal evangelism”.

Don’t skip that step: it’s all too easy for us to think we know what the Lord wants, because we’ve always been told that X or Y is “good”. But discerning what the Lord wants for THIS congregation at THIS time is something that cannot be short-circuited. We’ve got to go back to the Bible.

But now, let’s make this very practical, so you can see how the process would go from there in real life. Let’s take that last objective: learning to share one’s faith with others. Let’s suppose that we’re in a church where we, as leading believers, become concerned that our people are not able to share their faith. We know that it is the Lord’s goal that they should, and we know because scripture bluntly tells us so. Where do we go from there? How do we turn concern into action?

2/ “Do It Yourself”

Leaders, take your own medicine. Those who lead bear a special burden. But for that reason, they reap a special reward. To bear this burden well means to attend to the spiritual welfare of the believers in all ways, laboring hard at preaching, teaching, exhorting and serving. And when change is required in the church, it means that the good elder goes first.

If the change that is required in the congregation is more personal evangelism, then the elders don’t start lecturing and bullying the believers: instead, they provide themselves as living examples of where they want the congregation to go. They start by renewing their own personal knowledge and commitment to the gospel, and in making a much more deliberate effort at outreach themselves. Then they invite fellow believers along for the ride.

3/ Knowing When We’re Growing

Well, let’s suppose the elders have done that. What’s next?

Try asking this question: “What would it look like if our people WERE sharing the gospel as we would hope?” How would we know if they did it? In fact, if we have no answer to that, how do we know they’re not ALREADY doing it? We must have something that’s clueing us in to the impression that they are not. What would that be? And if they are not, by what signs would we be able to confirm that they are?

This should lead us to some practical indicators for success. For example, we might decide that if each of our fellow believers could explain the salvation message in simple terms, in his or her own words, to one of the leaders or elders, then we would know he or she was now capable. And if new believers were appearing and saying that so-and-so had led them to the Lord, we’d know they were actually sharing their faith. Or it might be an increase in persecution resulting from more Christians speaking more honestly, and thus raising the profile of the local testimony. There could be various practical signs.

The best of these would be the explicit word of scripture: “... always being ready”. If the local believers were ever ready to share their faith, we’d know we were obeying the Lord.

It’s very important to think through the metric by which we can know when we’ve succeeded. This is not us desiring to prove to ourselves that we are being good: this is a simple matter of stewardship. We need to confirm that we are actually achieving the objectives the Lord has given us, behaving like good servants. If we do not know whether or not what we are doing is working, how will we know we need to change it? If we do not know when it works, how will we know we can move on to other things?

4/ Locating Ourselves

Okay: so now we’ve got God’s goals in mind, and we have focused down on some means of assessing our progress toward them.

Next step: find out where we really are now. How many Christians can articulate the gospel? How clearly do they express it? How often do they share their faith? We could take a poll, but such things are rarely answered with perfect honesty, especially when some embarrassment might come from the answers. But maybe we need a test. What about an activity in which the Christians are paired up, and each one has, say, five minutes to share his or her faith with another? What might we discover?

We might find that everybody stutters and falters. We might find that all anyone knows is John 3:16. We might find out that half can express the way of salvation and half cannot. Or we might find out that everybody in our congregation is an exceptional evangelist. There’s no telling until we check.

5/ Taking Action

Okay, suppose that now we have our baseline facts: our congregation has only 30% of the mature believers who can share their faith clearly, intelligently and in theologically truthful terms. We want to change this, in response to 1 Peter 3:15. How do we proceed?

There isn’t — and shouldn’t be — any singular method for this. We need to employ whatever tool or strategy is most likely to produce the right change. Today, all most congregations can think of is preaching a series of pulpit lectures on the subject; but this is a very weak way of teaching any practical skill. It could be that the church needs an evangelism class. Maybe it needs those believers who can share their faith to come alongside those who are struggling, helping them discover their opportunities in their neighborhood. It could take the form of one-on-one discussions of how the believers are struggling today in sharing their faith, or it could be a “town hall” kind of meeting to open up discussion of how one shares the gospel. There are many ways to go — but the strategy will depend on the particular form of the need among the local believers. It will be a product of the discernment of the leadership under the guidance of God’s Spirit — it will not be a mere technique that can be the same for everyone in all situations.

Actually, as an aside, that has to be true of every part of this process. It’s not a strategy: rather it’s a determination to listen to the Lord and to act deliberately in obedience to him, enacted primarily through the leadership in the local church, but always under the modifying hand of the living Head of the Church. Any human decisions made in the process have to be made “lightly” — with a view to change instantly the minute the Spirit draws our attention to new needs and situations. The elders have to stay in close contact with the Head.

6/ Confirming Obedience

How will we know when we have obeyed what the Lord wants us to do? There’s no single set time for how long it takes for something to work. It depends on a lot of factors: the efficacy of the method, the spiritual responsiveness and personal effort of the congregation, the size of obstacles met along the way, the type of change we’re seeking to produce, and so on.

But in the case of teaching fellow believers how to be ready to share their faith, we should see some progress in a relatively short time. It should become apparent that they are expressing less fear of doing it. It should be possible for them to repeat a simple explanation to an elder. They should be generating some “buzz” about how their outreach efforts are progressing and asking follow-up questions to fill out their knowledge of the grounding theology. There should be many ways for the elders to discern that their approach is having an impact.

7/ Do It Again

When all the believers are capable of describing the way of salvation in their own words, and when there is good evidence they are applying it in their own lives, reaching out to friends and neighbors, and when it is apparent that they are seeking to grow in regard to reaching the lost, the elders may decide to move on to the next issue. Or they may discern that beyond the mere message is the additional skill of becoming really “gentle” and “reverent”: of, say, listening perceptively, caring deeply, or learning to live understandingly with non-Christian friendships. So they may continue and develop their support for personal evangelism further.

In any case, this is only one example. You can take the particulars of your own situation and fit them into this pattern. As I said earlier, I’m not trying to tell you what to do; I’m just trying to help you to see what seems to me the best way of going about it.

In a Nutshell

For your convenience, let me go over what I’ve said above in a concise list.

The important steps are as follows:

  1. Start by discerning the Lord’s priorities from scripture.
  2. Decide to act on obedience to those priorities: do it yourself.
  3. Define success: say in a very practical way how you will know when those priorities have been honored.
  4. Check to make sure you really understand the other believers’ situation.
  5. Choose the best methods to achieve the spiritual goal: then apply the methods discerningly, looking to the Lord for further direction.
  6. Test to confirm how effective your obedience has been in producing what God wants.
  7. Revise and continue, or choose a new priority from scripture and begin the process with a new issue.

What’s Not Here

There are some considerations that are normally central to leadership deliberations in the local church that find no place in this procedure. One is, “What have we always done?” Traditional methodology is irrelevant: scripture alone counts. Another is “What kind of church do we want?” What we want is not what should drive any change in the church: it’s not ours, it’s the Lord’s.

Other missing pieces:

  • “What does the church consultancy industry say?” Irrelevant.
  • “What is easiest for us to do?” It doesn’t matter: obedience takes precedence over convenience.
  • “How much will it cost us?” Not as much as the Lord paid for us.
  • “When can we stop thinking about it?” When the Lord returns.

Until then, his church will have needs, and change will be necessary.

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