The following article appeared on The Gospel Coalition Blog in 2012.
For some reason I have a soft place in my heart for renovation projects. My first house was the worst on the block. Much of my furniture was reclaimed out of dumpster. And my first dog was a mutt we rescued from the shelter. I love taking things that need some TLC and making them useful and beautiful again.
So it should come as no surprise that my first church was a renovation project as well. It was a great group of people, but the church needed help. Their independent, fundamental, KJV-only, Beulah Land tradition had fossilized thinking and halted growth. It wasn’t just that the church needed to change. The name of the church needed to be redeemed.
Over 11 years, I tried to renovate the spiritual life and vibrancy of a church from the inside out. It wasn’t easy, and I certainly didn’t do everything right. But in the end, God revealed a glorious example of the value of helping an existing congregation become a biblical, healthy model of what the church—-even an old church—-should be.
As I think back on over a decade of investment, here are some lessons on how to do spiritual renovation wisely and effectively.
1. Love them more than you hate where they are at.
Some of my friends, mentors, and colleagues were surprised that I went to a church that needed so much help and seemed to be much more conservative than I was. Actually, it was an easy decision, because I truly loved the people in the church. I loved their desire, I loved their passion, I loved their prayers, and I loved that they would give me the honor of being called their pastor. God gave me this love for them. Sure there was a lot to work on, and it was really, really frustrating at times. But I longed for them to be different because I loved them so deeply. And this love trumped everything that was hard, annoying, hurtful, and difficult.
2. Think like a missionary.
Our church, like every church, had its own culture that included language, symbols, expectations, history, and defining moments. You could think of this culture like the church’s code or DNA. A renovation project requires that you treat the church like a mission field. When churches don’t feel like you understand them, they view you as an alien intruder. Therefore, humility is required to learn about the church’s history. Trust is developed as you become one of them. Wisdom is applied as you learn the weighted values of the church so you can know which battles to fight and when.
I remember the moment when I put my NASB preaching Bible back on the shelf and pulled out my old KJV Bible. For more than eight years I used the King James Version in my preaching. Why? It was the love language of our people, it brought me into their world, and it freed us to work on other, more important things.
3. Small changes + time = progress.
Changing a church is as simple as small changes and time. So if you are not a patient person, please don’t try this. A small degree change on the rudder of a big ship can slowly but significantly alter a course. What’s more, this small shift is less likely to freak out the passengers. This investment of time pays a huge dividend as people in the church feel part of the journey. It took us years to move from a solo-heavy, hymns-only, organ-dominating style of worship to something more blended and contemporary. There were years—-not just weeks!—-when I cringed at what we were doing in comparison to other churches. But I knew that we’d get there eventually. We did not get here overnight, and it wasn’t going to change overnight.
4. Ground them in the Bible.
I had one providential advantage in my renovation project: I was only 26 years old, and I had no senior pastor experience. Therefore, my only authority (thankfully!) was the Bible. I simply had to teach what the Bible said, and then we sought to apply it together. I remember the first time I taught through Matthew 18, and we dealt with the issue of church discipline. I said, “Well, here’s what the Bible teaches, and it seems like we should start doing this.” We did. And the church responded incredibly well. As we followed the clear teachings of the Bible, we shared a sense of becoming healthy. It is so simple but profound: teach them the Bible. Week after week, month after month, those deposits of biblical truth pay off as people start to learn how to think, not just what to think.
5. Wait for a providential tipping point.
Over time new people showed up. A few members left. Some died. But as the Lord added new people to the church, something really interesting happened: the church dynamics began to change. New life, new ideas, and new energy began to eclipse the “we’ve never done it that way” mentality. I spent lots of time with new members and cast a clear vision within our membership class. Eventually enough things converged to produce momentum. You could feel it. It was contagious. These “tipping points” are wonderful to see, and they produce long-term change. But, like a wave, you can ride it, but you can’t necessary predict it. And you certainly cannot single-handedly create it. Only God can do that.
6. Make tough changes with a personal touch.
Some of the most difficult changes were felt by church members in personal ways. So I needed to shepherd the people involved personally. After eight years I determined it was time to change that Bible translation. I knew five families who would be alarmed. I took each of them out for lunch and explained what was coming in two months. I said, “I’m here today because I care about you, and I think that what I’m about to do might be offensive to you. So I want to talk about it so you can hear from me what I’m thinking and why.” Every family I met with appreciated the thoughtfulness even if they didn’t fully agree. One man who five years earlier would have said, “Over my dead, body!” said, “Thanks, pastor. I really felt loved today.” I learned a valuable lesson about change through that process: people are more likely to accept change when you use a personal touch.
A church renewal assignment is not an easy one, but it can result in an amazing, redemptive story. It requires a lot of love, a great deal of patience, a thick skin, and a keen ability to study what makes people tick (and ticked off). But there are few things more glorious than an old church that has found new life, restored its name, and enjoyed new hope.