By Dr. Terry Rials
July 29, 2020
Hmmmm… that is a really good question.
I would like to answer it somewhat Socratically. In order to answer this question, let me ask some other questions that serve to reframe the senario. (I would like to hear your thoughts as you ask yourself these questions. My contact email is below, so feel free to share them with me.) Please allow me to add my answers to yours. Since there is victory in a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14), please ask these questions to other learned colleagues and revitalizers as well, as you formulate your answer.
Here is the first question: Is there anything that I can do to make the church change? Go ahead and answer that. We all know the proverb that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. That sounds like too simple an explanation, a sort of an “oh well, I tried.” I have tended to rely on a sage piece of advice I was given by an older man in the church I attended in my youth. After surrendering to the pastoral ministry, Bro. Carol Johnson walked up to me and said sharply, “Boy, I want to give you one piece of advice – just remember, you can’t push a rope.” With that, he turned around and walked away. He was exactly right. You cannot push a rope, but you can pull it. If the church is like a rope, you can lead it along, but you cannot push it. Shepherds walk in front of the herd, leading it; they never try to push sheep from behind. If the sheep are willing to follow, then they will follow.
Here’s another question we must consider: Do you as the revitalizer still have vision, direction, and passion for leading your church? As I work with churches I see so many pastoral leaders who are visionless, directionless, and passionless, which saddens my heart. I truly believe the enemy has gained a foothold in the lives of pastors who are tired and who have forsaken their personal time alone with the Lord. I am talking about more than your daily quiet time, I am talking about getting alone with God for substantial periods of time to know the Father and discover His will and direction. Moses and Jesus both spent forty-days alone with God, Moses up on the mountain and Jesus out in the wilderness of Judea. One would hardly expect forty-days from a modern pastoral leader, so let me make it easier - when was the last time you spent 24-48 hours alone with God without any other human contact (including electronic)? We wonder why we don’t know where we are going? We are the proverbial blind leading the blind!
Let us look at the next question: Is it the revitalizer’s fault if the church does not want to change?" Take a moment to give an answer. We could argue that the ultimate responsibility for the church lies on the shoulders of the pastor. Think about the numerous prophets God sent to Israel and Judah in the Old Testament. Many of the speaking prophets have a book in our Bible, but there were countless other prophets God sent to preach to them. Was it the responsibility of those prophets that Israel had a rebellious and idolatrous heart? Was it the prophets’ fault that Judah relied upon the presence of the tabernacle (and later the temple) in Jerusalem to ward off their enemies? We all know the answer is no. The Galilean city of Chorazin had so many miracles performed in it, leading Jesus to conclude that if Tyre and Sidon had the same number of wonders performed there, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Matthew 11:21). Was it the fault of Jesus that Chorazin did not repent? Hardly.
Another important question to consider would be this: How long do I wait until I go do something else, somewhere else? Think carefully and pray earnestly about this answer. This is harder to answer hermeneutically. Jesus gave explicit direction to the twelve whom He sent out, “Any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off the soles of your feet for a testimony against them” (Mark 6:11). When Paul and Barnabas were evangelizing in Pisidian Antioch, the Jews revolted against their preaching in the synagogue and even persecuted Paul and Barnabas for ministering to the Gentiles there. When Paul and Barnabas were no longer able to see benefit from their time and effort, they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium (Acts 13:51). When a substantial percentage and the most influential portion of the people refuse to follow you as you lead out, it is probably time to consider a move. From my experience in a long-tenured pastorate I would advise you as a pastor to know when you have taken the church as far as you can take it. If your train is at the end of the tracts, it may be time to consider your own Iconium. In full disclosure, I am not the Holy Spirit and have no right to tell you that you should or should not leave. Jeremiah prophesied for forty years with absolutely no results. Yet God wanted him to stay right where he was and be faithful to that call for the remainder of his life. That was God’s plan for Jeremiah, and Jeremiah was faithful to that calling.
Perhaps if we could answer these questions, we would know what to do if the church will not change and move forward. Many churches cannot or will not change, so inevitably they will die. We may accept that the churches we lead need to change, but perhaps we are the ones who need to change the most. How can we expect the church we serve to change if they do not see us doing it personally? I often argue that the church will respond to change when they see that change sparked in you at the direction of the Lord.
One last question: Why did people follow the most unlikely leaders in the Bible? Look at a brief list of them: Moses, Deborah, Gideon, David, Josiah, Nehemiah, Peter, Paul, Agabus. People followed them because they had been with the Lord.
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