How to Change Your Church

By Mark Dever

Introduction: Change

Change is necessary. In a fallen world, lost in sin, the one thing that is needful is for us to change. We must change our relationship with God from estrangement to acceptance. We must change our standing before Him from guilty to forgiven. We must change our heart for Him, from dead to alive. I say “we must change”, but in all of these changes, God must make the way, and give us the heart to travel it.

But change doesn’t stop with conversion. As Christians we know that we are to continue to change as we grow in Christ. Our love for God and devotion to His will should grow, even as our love for the world and its ways should wane.

Our need to continue to change, however, isn’t limited to ourselves; it’s also true of those around us, and of our churches, too. And few know this better than the pastor of a church. Any given church, with all of its virtues and strengths, is in need of change. The Protestant reformers knew this, and confessed it in their oft-quoted slogan “the reformed church, always being reformed by the Word of God.” That sums it up nicely, doesn’t it?

How to change? But the question then often comes, “How do we get our churches to change?” Praise God for all the ways our churches don’t slip off into bad directions. And we can be thankful for ways in which they are resistant to changes that would be bad. But in that category of changes that we know should happen—a renewed commitment to expository preaching, to evangelism, to a disciplined membership—how can we contribute to those reforms in our churches? It is on this very point that too many ministers—including some of you who are reading this piece right now—have ended up being alienated from many in your church, with some ministers even being fired. I think of some words Phillip Jensen (of St. Matthias Church, Sydney, Australia) said to me this past summer, “Unless you change something in your first year, you never will; and whatever you do change in your first year will be wrong.” (Phillip is the only pastor I know who can make John Piper seem understated!) We must lead our churches to change, and yet we must realize that such change will often be difficult.

If we need to lead our churches to do something both so necessary and yet so dangerous as change, how should we do it? In this brief article I want to make just a few suggestions in answer to this question, and they are these: teach, stay and love.

I. Teach to change

First, all ideas of the direction of any local church should come from Scripture. As we sit under the preaching of the Word, our needs and God’s supply are revealed. We are taught to follow the Lord’s commands for His church. The most powerful tool in changing any church is the pulpit. The regular, expository preaching of Scripture is how God’s Spirit normally works in our hearts.

Pray that through your preaching, God will teach your church to change in the ways it needs to change. It is amazing how many times we pastors want to fix problems before we’ve given any time and thought to explaining to people what the problems are—and why they’re problems! Even when we’ve done that, have we explained how we think we may have gotten into these problems, how we could get out, and some of the benefits that would come to us as a church by addressing the problem?

We may see something as a priority, and see so rightly from the Word, but that doesn’t mean that those who don’t see it are evil; they may simply be ignorant, but even if that is so, we must remember that we are their teachers. Too many pastors have tried to force changes in their church—often defended as leadership—when they should have tried to inform them. Brothers, we should feed the sheep entrusted to our care, not beat them. Most of the changes that we need to see in our churches cannot be coerced or ordered. We must teach the congregation that God has entrusted to our care. We must convince them.

Even if the change you envision is right, there is still the further question of whether the time is right for that change. And even if you could get a particular change through without getting fired, what cost will it exact from the body as a whole at that point in the congregation’s life? Being right is not a license for immediate action.

This brings me to my second observation of what we need to do to lead our churches in change.

II. Stay to change

We must stay at a church long enough to teach. We must stay at a church long enough to see the church understand and embrace needed change. In fact, we should desire to see the bride of Christ so built up that there are not simply individual changes made, but rather a whole culture developed. We should labor in the congregation to see a culture of devotion to Christ typify the church. So important is this willingness to plant yourself in one location, that I’ve wondered if we should include long pastorates as a tenth mark of a healthy church (in addition to the nine I’ve already written about).

A survey sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and the financial services firm Primerica has found that 28% of Americans believe their best chance for building long-term wealth is to play the lottery. Among households with annual incomes of $35,000 or less, 40% put their faith in gambling. Fewer than a third of respondents said that $25 invested weekly for 40 years at a 7% annual yield would amount to over $150,000. In fact, it would amount to $286,640. (reported in World, Nov 20, 1999, p. 14). In our culture, we underestimate the power of longevity, of repeated faithfulness.

I remember several years ago talking with one pastor immediately after having listened to one mother of a young child expressing her despair over the seeming futility of her endless round of the same repeated tasks. The pastor, looking wistfully out the window, said the same thing! But both needed to be encouraged to realize that God works over time, that characters are formed slowly, and that such faithfulness is a beautiful reflection of God’s consistent care for us.

Long pastorates help the pastor, too. They help to eliminate the pastor simply coming in with a bag of tricks (or barrel of sermons), doing his thing for 2 or 3 years, and then simply moving on. Generally, the longer we stay at a place, the more real we have to be—and that’s good for our own souls, and for those we serve.

Often, over time the vision of a congregation begins to slip from God and His glory to the church and its satisfaction. We are to consistently work to refocus the church on God and His priorities by the careful, continuous, repeated teaching of His Word. We are to glorify God by the building up of His church and the evangelization of the world, not by simply doing all we can to keep the current set of members happy. With almost any group of several score or larger, some people will resist needed changes. At that point, the group has a crucial decision to make—is it more important that we find some way to continue to include everyone who is presently here, or is it more important that we (as a group) move in a particular direction, even if such a move comes at the cost of certain ones of our number leaving because they do not feel that they can consent to this change? Such difficult points in a congregations life are best reached slowly, deliberately, openly and with much patient teaching. Remember Paul’s great charge to Timothy: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-- with great patience and careful instruction,” (II Tim. 4:2). Your patient teaching can help your church move from self-centeredness to a God-centered self-giving in mission, evangelism and discipling. Such patience will usually require you to stay.

The idea of such commitment to one group is vanishing in the workplace and even in the home. The model for Gen-Xers is not a pre-fabricated corporate ladder, with carefully limited pathways, but rather the mosaic of the world-wide web, with alternatives and options seeming to spread out infinitely. Our generation is being taught to value varying experiences, understanding each one as enriching the other. To remain at one company for many years seems at least unimaginative, and at most a reflection of a debilitating fear of the new.

We pastors need to be willing to set a different model in our congregations. We need to teach them that commitment is good, whether that’s to our marriages and families, our friends and our faith, or even our church and our neighborhood. It is in the light of such longer-term commitments (thinking in terms not of months, but of decades) that we can help a church to find its right priorities and to institutionalize them afresh. To that end we pastors should choose our battles wisely. We should carefully prioritize one needed change over another. We should consider which of the several changes that seem needful is most needed right now. We should consider what order these changes could most naturally come in. Do we address first how we take members in, or how we practice church discipline? Do we address first how we improve attendance at Sunday School, or how we want the Sunday School to improve? All such decisions are important for the church, and take both patience and a longer-term commitment by the pastor to be willing to think in such a mature, long-range way.

As a pastor, your greatest power to help your congregation change comes not through your forceful personality, but by your months and years of faithful, patient teaching. Changes that do not happen this year, may come next year. And in the meantime, the teaching that you’ve given, and even the results of those changes not being made yet, may well be opening the eyes and changing the hearts of the congregation. Under the influence of good teaching and right priorities in the pastor’s preaching and schedule and leadership, some changes may simply happen naturally.

In a recent book, Peter Brierley wrote that “Several studies have indicated that, within limits, the longer a minister stays with his/her church, the greater likelihood of growth. Paul Beasley-Murray, now Senior Minister in a large Baptist church in Essex, in a 1981 study of half the Baptist churches in England, found that growing churches were invariably associated with ministers who had served in their current church between five and fifteen years, though some grew after over twenty-five years of service! The five-to-fifteen year slot is confirmed for studies in other than Baptist churches,” (Steps to the Future [2000], p. 28).

Friends, all of this is not advice that you stay in a place so long that you simply wear anyone out; rather that you should stay in a place long enough that you can teach them in. The key to change is to stay in one church long enough to teach the congregation. If you don’t plan on staying like that, then be very careful before you start something that the next guy is going to have to finish. Beware of leaving the congregation hardened either against you or your successor, or even against the change itself.

I remember as a young seminarian taking as my model three Cambridge Anglican clergymen who all had expositional ministries in key locations stretching over many years—Richard Sibbes (in Cambridge and London for 30 years), Charles Simeon (in Cambridge for over 50 years), and John Stott (in London for over 50 years). All three of these men by the grace of God built the church they served and even effected the rising ministerial generations by their long faithfulness.

Conclusion: Love to change

Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said that the best negotiation position “is the biggest purse and the longest cannon.” What I am suggesting here is that for the pastor, the best way to help a church change is to provide the meatiest, most compellingly Biblical teaching over the longest time.

But even with great teaching patiently given, something still could be lacking. Finally, in order to desire the right changes, and to teach about them, and to stay so that you can do so patiently, you must love. You must love the Lord, and you must love His people, over whom He has set you, to tend and care for them. From love will come genuine care for God and His Word. From love comes humility. Clement of Rome said that “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock.” And from love will come the patient care that will again and again turn the congregation to the long-term, the horizon, to the Word of God in all their decisions.

None of this is intended to say that either short pastorates or getting fired are in themselves necessarily signs of a minister’s faults. There are certainly short, faithful pastorates.

The courtiers of Henry IV of France, one day complimenting him upon the strength of his constitution, told him that he might live to be eighty years of age. He replied, “The number of our days is reckoned. I have often prayed to God for grace, but never for a long life. A man who has lived well, has always lived long enough, however early he may die.”

Certainly Jonathan Edwards was no less faithful a pastor simply because his congregation dismissed him. Some of us have had short and faithful pastorates. But these are not my concern here. With this short piece, I have simply intended to raise in your mind some thought of how you may, by teaching, staying and loving lead your congregation in Biblical change.

May God help all of us to so care for His people that His church is built up and His name is glorified.

By Mark Dever. ©9Marks. Website:
Email: Toll Free: (888) 543-1030.

Recommended Resources

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church
Mark Dever

The Deliberate Church
Mark Dever & Paul Alexander

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