Back in Autumn 2011 I spoke at a conference of evangelists and pastors. One of the messages was titled "how goes it with your church?" It explored from Ephesians 4 how the leadership ministry of evangelists is meant to be one of equipping and facilitating the witness of the whole community of believers.
In conversations after the talk it was obvious that for many of the evangelists this was nothing like the reality of their situation. Indeed most of them were persuaded that their local church wasn't interested in being a witnessing community and that they didn't have the ability to change it. So they were getting on with doing semi-detached evangelism, reporting back occasionally, but essentially leaving their churches to it.
Then I got talking to three vicars who all said something similar: "we have been sent to churches that are a long way from the glorious picture of the church in Ephesians 3+4. But we simply can't change them, so we will simply knuckle down and do what is expected of us - Sunday preaching and pastoral visits - until we retire. This is the best we can hope for so we had better just put up with it."
Talk about depressing!
The interesting thing with the vicars is that they all had "the living" in their church (ie nobody could throw them out for doing something unpopular). So I asked them all why they felt they couldn't change the situation when, strictly speaking, they had the authority so to do. Was it:
- That they didn't know what to do?
- That they were so busy that they didn't have enough capacity or hours in the day?
- That they would meet so much emotional resistence if they tried that they knew they would be worn out before they accomplished anything?
All three instantly said answer 3.
Church cultures settle into ruts for all kinds of reasons. But once in them they can be exceptionally difficult to shift out again. Particularly where people have joined for reasons other than being a biblical church, trying to draw them back to that picture often feels like inviting them to embrace a completely different understanding of themselves, their purpose in life, their future. It invites them to go from the comfortable and familiar to the unknown. From walking by sight to walking by faith. If the majority of people don't have a lot in their hand spiritually speaking you can expect them to resist like crazy.
The vicars reinforced something I already knew: individual leaders leading on their own (almost) never manage to change a resistant church culture. One person simply doesn't have the resources, capacity or ability to handle the criticism that comes to do so. People only have to dig in their heels for so long and they know that you will wear down before they do.
This is yet one more example of the wisdom of the biblical pattern of plural leaders acting as close teams in a local church. A team has the ability to press through difficulty together that a sole leader simply doesn't. A team is able to deal with wounding criticism in a way one person can't. A team changes the critical mass pushing for biblical Christianity and biblical church in a way that one person can't.
If you are leading a church on your own and wondering how to press through to new breakthroughs, developing a team of leaders with you is an essential step along the way. Without it you will go a certain way and then stop. The team is bigger than you. If it pleases God the team will last longer than you (and you will last longer with it than you would on your own). The team brings a greater range of gifts and skills than you. The team will change a resistant culture when you cannot.