Taking Over

I was reading on Forbes.com a couple of weeks ago about the proposed buyout of Motorola Mobility by Google. The author, Eric Jackson, views the move by Google to be a misstep by current lead executive (and Google co-founder), Larry Page. At one point Jackson writes…

Academic research clearly shows that some of the riskiest strategic shifts for companies happen in a new CEO’s first year on the job. They want to put their mark on the place. They’re also much more self-confident than they probably deserve to be.

I must qualify what I write by making very clear that the senior or lead pastor ought not be viewed as or act like a corporate CEO. Plenty of pastors have made terrible mistakes by an overestimated view of themselves. Be that as it may, this quote resonated with me as I inherited an established ministry nearly 4 years ago, and have counseled a number of guys on their “first steps,” as they do the same. As long as I’ve been in vocational ministry I’ve served under a pastor lead model for church. Such a model affords a senior pastor a significant level of authority over the ministry, which has both it’s pros and cons.

There are unique realities when taking over an established ministry, which should be considered before the new lead pastor endeavors to make significant changes. The more I consider these uniquenesses, the more attractive birthing new works becomes, as new works are far more flexible. The culture of a church is, in many ways, established in the first 3 to 5 years of it’s life, and course corrections are more difficult for a church with an established culture. This being the case I think that it is very important that incoming lead pastors, taking over existing works, take to heart the truth behind Erick Jackson’s quote; even if it isn’t directed at pastoral ministry.

It is certain that there are changes to be made when a new pastor takes over a church. Many of those changes can be made without much grief or pushback within the first 12 to 18 months, as that is something of a honeymoon or grace period for a new pastor. Longstanding “members” of the fellowship will be more forgiving and gracious, even if they’re not fully in step with the alterations. In some ways I think that the body views such moves with a good level of openness saying, “Well, he’s the new guy,” or “He’s just learning; still a little young/green.” Whatever it is, it’s easier to get away with in the first year and a half.

When initial changes are made, some people will leave. Generally speaking, the people who leave in the first 6 months of a transition would probably have left anyway. Unless they themselves had taken over the church. The alterations that are made serve as a nice smokescreen for why they left. It’s a whole lot easier to say, “I really didn’t like the change they made to the service order,” than “I don’t like the new pastor.” Not everyone will be able to connect with the “new guy” as the transition takes place.

Over the last four years I’ve discovered that the church is like a wife. I realize that this is not a totally insightful observation; she is called the “Bride of Christ.” I want to say what I’m going to say as delicately as I can, because I’m sure someone is going to misunderstand what it is I’m trying to say. A church, like a wife, desires security. The pastor is not the groom, clearly Christ is the groom and the church His bride. Be that as it may, the church still desires a level of security and consistency. A senior leadership change affects the consistency and can shake the security, so I’m convinced that making frivolous moves to to put the mark of the new leader on the place, which amount to nothing more than cosmetic window dressing, are unnecessary (e.g. “Let’s change the name to something cool”).

My counsel for new guys is simple.

  • Be strategic. Be calculated. Think through the ramifications of the changes, as ideas and adjustments have longterm consequences.
  • Fundamental changes to the vision and mission of the local body should only be made if it is clear that the church has been off course or without vision.
  • Vision/mission corrections should have firm Biblical basis (e.g. What is the mission of our church? To make disciples by equipping the saints).
  • Larger changes ought to be done incrementally. If a new [smaller] church plant is like an agile speedboat, an established larger church (or cultured church) is more like an aircraft carrier, which takes time to turn. So, instead of making a hard 90º turn, it may take six 15º moves to go in the new direction.

It’s definitely characteristic of youthfulness to desire to do things quickly, but when taking over, it’s good a good reminder… take your time.

Cultural Shift – Part 3; Implications For Western Christianity

[dropcap3]A[/dropcap3]s I’ve studied church history, I think it no stretch to conclude that local churches, over the last 2 millennia, have experienced an average attendance of about 75 adults. Enter, 20th century American Christianity. Or, as I like to call it, Consumeranity.

The average church size in America at present hovers at a little more than 180 adult members, roughly 2.5x larger than historical averages. While nearly 60% of American churches are 100 or less, and around 90% are under 400; more than half of all churchgoers in America attend a church of 400 or more adults.(1) Most congregations are small but most people are apart of large congregations. Such large [Consumeranity] congregations skew the numbers, and [unfortunately] this abnormality is normal for the majority of American Christians.

This anomaly is a relatively recent phenomena (the last 50 years or less), and I believe that the cultural shift taking place in America today will – in the next generation – bring the church back to normal in terms of congregational size and makeup. But what happens when abnormal, which has become normal, reverts back to true normal?

As a result of this shift, some will feel real pain. Many (especially the “movers and shakers” of mega-church evangelicalism) will fight against it. We tend to oppose change, as change is painful. But change is an essential part of life. Alistair Begg once said, “Where there’s life, there’s change. You want no change, live in a cemetery. [There’s no change there], accept for decay.” Therefore, if the church is to experience vitality and life, it will be faced with regular change, or it will decay.

What then does normal Christianity look like in the context of 21st century America? I think it looks like church has for 2,000 years. The gatherings of believers are smaller in size, community oriented, or people-group centered fellowships. For lack of a better word, they are tribal. This being the case, I’m not necessarily sure that multi-cultural, multi-ethnic churches are the norm. That’s not to say that there are not beautiful things that take place in such settings, they’re just not the norm.

Frontline missions has sought for generations to establish self-replicating, indigenous church planting movements. But in our own backyard we constantly seek for an American (or western) multiculturalism within the local body. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating segregation, only setting forth for consideration the idea that congregations have an established cultural identity from which they worship and express Christian love and character in a way that is relevant to the cultural makeup of the gathered believers.

What then does it practically look like? In all honesty it is quite hard to say, as I have no rhyme or reason for my belief, other than a hunch. I do however think that over the next 30 years the larger congregations in America will fracture along tribal fault-lines as the charismatic executive leaders move on. The churches will become multifarious. They would therefore do well to be proactive in their planning now, if they are to have influence then. I suggest that the best thing the larger traditional church can do is not to scrap it all in favor of a “home church movement” (as one home church movement leader once exhorted me to do) or fight against the shift to prop up the establishment, but to embrace the reality of a smaller community church model by taking what I believe is an Antioch approach.

The Church of Antioch was the first thriving “uttermost parts” church mentioned in the book of Acts. It was the first Gentile church, and the first at which the followers of Christ were referred to as “Christians.” Little is said in the book of Acts about the makeup of the Antioch church, but my gut tells me that it was a fairly large fellowship with multiple meeting places throughout the region.  They were one church, composed of many congregations, superintend by a plurality of overseers (I have purposefully chosen not to use “plurality of elders,” as it means something more than what I’m saying here). The core leadership of Antioch consisted of five apostolic, teaching leaders; Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, Saul (Paul). Antioch thrived for several centuries and was known as a charitable, missional and evangelical church.

As large western churches navigate the current cultural shift, and more and more church planters step forth to birth new works; I propose (as possible first steps) that they/we maintain established church structures to raise up a multiplicity of lay pastors to oversee small community fellowships throughout a city, county or region. Furthermore, churches ought to establish an apostolic core of leadership dedicated to discipleship, for equipping an ever increasing population of overseeing pastors and missionaries.

Ideally, for our fellowship (Calvary Escondido), I’d love to see us get to a point where we have 30+ lay pastors, overseeing small gatherings (under 75) in homes, community centers and other well-suited venues throughout our city and the surrounding region. I would expect we would maintain the structure we currently have for regular corporate worship gatherings as well as a central meeting place for equipping and training. Such a body incorporates the strengths of smaller fellowships (self-care of benevolence, discipline, counsel and other pastoral care needs) as well as the accountability and enabling resources of a larger congregation.

I am quite sure that I’ve overlooked several blind-spots in my consideration of where ecclesiology is headed in 21st century western culture, but as I’m certain it is experiencing a course correction, I want to be at least hypothesizing what that may look like. At the end of the day, I know one thing for sure… God builds his church, I tend to be just “along for the ride.”

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(1) National Congregations Study – 2006-07