Change is strange and sometimes difficult. But change is important for growth. I’m going to write about the importance of change, but I want to be clear that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the purpose of the church are totally unchanging. Ironically, it is the things in church which need to change, that we are often most sentimental about. Gospel-centred vision is so helpful in the church to help you know what to change and why. This article isn’t about constructing a vision for the local church – although I’ll hint at these ideas – this is about change.
‘Vision’ is a word that makes many of us feel either excited or baffled. Are you in a church with a strong vision, or is that word rarely used? What should a vision look like for a local church, and is it helpful?
‘And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”’ (Matthew 28:18-20).
The Great Commission was Christ’s final words to his disciples before he ascended to the right hand of his Father in heaven. As a result, it’s also the vision of the church all over the world and for all time. But what does that look in the local church in the twenty-first century in Wales? The Great Commission will produce a different vision for a valleys church than for a city church. For the local church, the vision should not go beyond a local contextualisation of the Great Commission, and it should show you, as a church, where you are heading.
Changing church culture
In the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches, where I’m the ministry director, we’ve developed a new vision statement: ‘Exalting Christ in Growing Healthy Churches.’ Christ is the centre, he is the Lord of the church, he is sovereign, and he is with us. Growing healthy churches means two things. First, enabling churches to call pastors. Secondly, connecting small and struggling churches with nearby established churches so that the small church can be replanted.
Seeing this new vision being worked out in the last year or so has been so encouraging. Of course, churches are notorious for resisting change, and we’ve had to deal with a surprising number of obstacles. These obstacles are usually superficial things that are often cultural, like the building, the time of the service, seating, signs, songs, and dress. The Bible says little specifically about these issues, preferring instead to give us broad principles. So while the Bible isn’t entirely silent about seating, signs and songs, generally a church’s stance on them is dictated primarily by its culture, not the Scriptures.
Imagine that you had never been to your church before and you don’t know Jesus. You are walking past the church on a Sunday morning, and someone standing outside invites you to come in for a meeting. What do you think as you walk in? Is the place welcoming, do people talk to you? Or does it feel like a time warp that has no connection with the rest of life? Would you go back again?
These are difficult questions. Sometimes, if a church gets smaller to the point that closure looks like the inevitable future, a church needs to be challenged about the way they do things. I’m not saying that the church needs to bow to culture, that would be wrong. I’m saying that church needs to be a welcoming place where the people are meeting with the Lord, and they are reaching out in evangelism. I often find that the smaller a church becomes, the more strongly its subculture emerges, and the less open it becomes to change.
If a struggling church is not willing to change trivial things like seating, service times and décor, as it receives help and guidance from a larger church, then it will probably not be willing to make the changes needed to grow again, like the leadership, the building, the music, prayer meetings and evangelism. The mindset ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ is a sure way to close a church. In situations like this, the church will often end up closing. When the Bible speaks of a church closing, it is the result of God’s judgment. If the Lord speaks this way to the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:5), it can happen anywhere.
The connection between unwillingness to change trivial things and the gospel may seem odd, but I believe that the link is often a reality in small churches. We must fight against resistance to change; we must be willing to embrace change for the sake of gospel growth.
Prayer and evangelism
Two other aspects of church life that tend to diminish as a church gets smaller are prayer and evangelism. And yet, prayer and evangelism are vitally important for the growth and purpose of the church. When I visit a small church, I normally meet with the leadership. I always ask two questions: ‘Are your prayer meetings focused on spiritual growth?’ and ‘Are people in the church engaging in evangelism?’ If the answer to one of these questions is no, it’s usually the case that the other is suffering as well. If a church is doing outreach but not praying about it, the outreach is powerless. If a church is praying but not witnessing to Christ, the prayer is not leading to action.
I also visit many strong and growing churches. Without exception, growing churches are praying churches, and they are witnessing churches. As I’ve thought about this, I’m more and more convinced that prayerfulness and witness to Christ are central for the renewal of the church in the United Kingdom.
What are the prayer meetings like in your church? Do people mainly pray for sick members, hospital appointments and job interviews? Or is the focus on spiritual growth, the preaching of the Word, and the salvation of sinners through the church’s witness? The Bible exhorts believers to pray for the sick, but this should not be the staple diet of prayer meetings. When a church’s prayer meeting focuses on worldly comfort, the church culture tends to do the same, and the gospel is de-emphasised. But when a church’s prayer meetings are focused on spiritual growth, evangelism and mission, the church culture tends to be directed towards spiritual things. Reading the apostolic prayer is a great way to encourage spiritual prayer (e.g. Acts 4:24-31; Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 1:9-12).
What are your church prayer meetings like? How do they affect the culture of your church? And how do you think this relates to the congregation’s willingness to embrace change for the sake of gospel growth?
The Lord is with his church
Does your church have a vision? If it doesn’t, is that reflective of a lack of purpose and direction in your church? If not, that’s no problem. But if your church is shrinking and has no real direction, think about asking for help from the Evangelical Movement of Wales or a nearby evangelical church. If this happens, you’ll need to be ready to change, sometimes radical change, and if you’re not prepared for that, you need to be ready for the consequences and what that means biblically.
The Lord Jesus, who gave us the Great Commission, has promised to be with his church, and to build his church – what a huge encouragement! ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the Kingdom’ (Luke 12:32).