In this fourth post, we are asking and answering the question: what exactly does it look like on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, to lead a declining church — specifically leading change in a declining church, with the Word?
Let’s consider three important components to doing this well.
1. The Word of God gives us our message to be proclaimed.
We have one message in church revitalization: The gospel. The gospel is the good news of Jesus! And it is the central message of the Bible. Ray Ortlund summarizes the gospel in this way:
God, through the perfect life, atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, rescues all his people from the wrath of God into peace with God, with a promise of the full restoration of his created order forever—all to the praise of the glory of his grace. Salvation from the judgment of God into fellowship with God is all of God. It is not of us.¹
This gospel, as taught throughout Scripture, must be the primary, overarching message we proclaim as pastors. We cannot improve on this message and so we ought not try. Hear the good news message of the gospel:
- Mark 10:45: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
- Romans 5:8: God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
- Romans 6:23: The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:1: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 8:32: He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
- 2 Corinthians 5:21: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
- 2 Corinthians 8:9: You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
- 1 Timothy 1:15: The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
- 1 John 4:10: In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
The gospel is good news. It is the best news! It is the power of God that brings salvation to all who believe it (Rom. 1:16). Moreover, the gospel is not simply the power to save, it is the power to mature and sanctify. As Tim Keller writes:
We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.” The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A-Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make progress in the kingdom.
We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience, but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col. 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom. 1:16-17). It is very common in the church to think as follows. “The gospel is for non-Christians. One needs it to be saved. But once saved, you grow through hard work and obedience.” But Colossians 1:6 shows that this is a mistake. Both confession and “hard work” that is not arising from and “in line” with the gospel will not sanctify you-it will strangle you. All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel. Thus when Paul left the Ephesians he committed them “to the word of his grace, which can build you up” (Acts 20:32).
The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel-a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principal article of all Christian doctrine …. Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel – seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church. ¹
Keller is right. The gospel alone is what brings new life, new hope, new joy, and new power to God’s people. This is why the gospel must be central in our preaching, our teaching, our pastoral care and our leadership in the church. As individual lives are revitalized and transformed by Christ and His gospel, so congregations will be revitalized and transformed as well. The biblical Gospel alone brings the spiritually dead to life and this includes dying churches.
2. The Word of God prescribes our methods to be implemented.
The Bible is clear on what the church is, what it’s supposed to do, and how it’s supposed to do it. As our sole authority in church revitalization, then, the Bible alone must determine and shape our methods and programming philosophies. We live in a strange day when many pastors and church leaders will affirm their belief in the Bible as the very Word of God, and yet the ministry methods and strategies they implement in their churches are adopted more often from the latest Fortune 500 company or church growth book than they are the Scripture. This is particularly true in declining churches trying to turn things around.
What is the issue here? Why would a dying church and its leaders seek to model themselves and be shaped and guided by anything other than God and His Word? How can you hold to the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the Bible and yet not submit to the Bible’s instruction on church methodology — what we do and how we do it? The issue here pertains to one’s belief regarding the sufficiency of Scripture. Do we as pastors and leaders believe that the Bible is sufficient, not only in giving us the gospel message we proclaim, but also the gospel methods we are to implement in our congregations? Do we believe that God’s Word gives us everything we need to know about leading and growing churches most effectively God’s way, for God’s glory?
When we turn to the Scripture, we see that the Lord has clearly told us what He desires for His Church. We don’t need to guess as to what He wants and what we are supposed to do. For example, some of the nonnegotiable marks of a God-honoring church, which the Bible clearly lays out include:
– Expositional preaching
– Church discipline
– The Lord’s Supper
– Sacrificial giving
– Church membership
– Qualified pastor-elders and deacons
While not exhaustive, these are all marks of a biblical, God-honoring church. The Lord wants congregations that are marked by these things.
As church revitalizers, we desperately need God Himself to guide and direct us and He does this by His Spirit, through His Word. Again, if we want the Lord to move powerfully in and though our congregations, we must do things His way, for His glory. This means allowing the Bible to tell us what to do and how to do it. The Word of God must prescribe our methods.
3. The Word of God serves as the primary means (or tool) for leading change.
The Word of God not only gives us our message and shapes our methods, but it also must serve as our primary means, or tool, for leading change in church revitalization.
As leaders, we must be very intentional to constantly put forth the Bible as the authority in every area of the church’s life, letting God’s people wrestle with the Word of God continually in all matters of faith and practice. This simply means it is imperative for us to lead in such a way that those in the congregation are wrestling first with the Bible before anything or anyone else. If we are truly going to be “Bible churches” that submit to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, churches that believe that God has told us what to do and how to do it as congregations, then we as pastors must lead with the Word, even when it ruffles feathers. And the Bible will surely ruffle feathers! The Bible will confront every one of us in all kinds of uncomfortable but needed ways. This includes any sinful attitude or agenda anyone might have for the church, which lies in direct opposition to God’s Word.
When talking with pastors serving in church revitalization contexts, I often refer to this as making the Bible the bad guy in our leadership. Here’s what I mean by that: If we as revitalizers find ourselves in a position where we are constantly seen as the bad guy, as the enemy, particularly with those in the congregation that resist biblical change of any kind, then we are most likely operating from a place where we are leading as the authority, rather than letting God, through His Word, lead as the authority. Again, we must lead in such a way that people are forced to deal with the clear, authoritative teaching of Scripture above all else. This alone makes God’s voice the loudest and most powerful leadership voice in any church, which ought to be every shepherd’s goal.
You see, what we are trying to do here as pastors is to bring together a stated doctrine of Scripture with the practice of that doctrine within the life of the church. Too many revitalization pastors only lead with the Bible reactively, when they have to bring out “the big gun” to make a point or initiate an important change of some kind. What I am proposing is that you lead with “the big gun” all of the time! Lead in such a way that every person in the congregation knows your agenda as a pastor and leader is always God’s agenda, because you are constantly pointing everyone back to Scripture, back to what God says He wants to see happen in your church. You want to lead in such a way that when difficult people in the congregation desire their agenda above God’s agenda, they get frustrated because we keep forcing them to go back to the Bible and wrestle with what God says. This is a good thing.
Don’t make the mistake of making some church fad or church growth guru the loudest voice of authority in your leadership. Again, many pastors make this major mistake. Here’s what happens over time. As helpful as these churches, ministries and individuals might be, eventually people will see these as fleeting voices that shift like sand. Fads and gurus come and go, but the Word of God remains steady and sure forever. Healthy change can only happen as it’s led by His Word. So, lead with it!
Whether we’re talking about changing the name of our church, or getting rid of the old carpet in the sanctuary, or switching what kind of coffee we are serving on Sunday mornings or introducing a new order to the weekly worship service — whatever the change might be — lead that change with the Word. In other words, what does the Bible say about this kind of change? Why does it matter? How does this change help us to better proclaim and live out the gospel to those inside and outside the walls of our church?
As one example, if you are looking at changing the name of your church, you must be able to communicate clearly and persuasively from the Bible how this name change will enhance your congregation’s ability to more effectively carry out Jesus’ mission to make disciples in your community. Changes like this must be led from the Word of God, not from the latest church health book or article written by the pastor down the street whose congregation has exploded in worship attendees the past few years.
Other sources can be helpful, for sure, but we must emphasize with our people that these secondary, supporting sources, always submit to Scripture. As we lead this way over time, we will help our church become one that loves the Word of God and sees itself under the authority of the Scriptures, not just through lip service, but in practice. These are the types of churches that are healthy, vibrant, and growing in all the right ways. Why? Because as the Word of God rules, the God of the Word reigns.
¹ What Does It Mean To Be A Gospel-Centered Church? Ray Ortlund https://www.acts29.com/a-gospel%C2%AD-centered-church/
¹ Tim Keller “The Centrality of the Gospel” http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Centrality_of_the_Gospel-Keller.pdf
This post originally appeared on Mark’s blog, Preach Lead Love.
Published April 1, 2021