Pastoral Theology & Change

by Jackson Watts

One of the most frustrating aspects of Christian leadership—and pastoral ministry in particular—is the challenge of leading congregations through change. By change we mean either the 1) introduction of something new to the church’s life, 2) reformation of an existing aspect of a church’s ministry, or 3) removal or cessation of something that presently exists in the church. Any of these changes require different considerations. Of course, the specific object of change also carries its own unique baggage.

Whether leaders be pastors, deacons, teachers, and/or some other ordained or elected person, most recognize how unusually difficult change can be. It’s demanding because we deal not only with processes, policies, and procedures; we deal with people. Because people are an exceptional bundle of personality, heritage, hope, fear, giftedness, and brokenness, this only adds to the complexity of figuring out the mechanics required to implement any change effectively.

In a forthcoming series of posts, I will explore how any sound pastoral theology, and philosophy of Christian leadership in general, must incorporate the concept and practice of change. The genesis of these posts is a presentation I gave as an ENGAGE Leadership Seminar at the 2015 National Association meeting in Grand Rapids.

What’s in a Change?

For all the talk about change among evangelicals (including Free Will Baptists), we often don’t attend to the theological underpinnings to the subject. We tend to paper over these, operating purely on the level of the practical outcomes. We want change in the interest of things “going more smoothly” or “being more efficient.” This is understandable. After all, we want to pursue a “manner of life,” to use the New Testament’s language, which accords with the sound doctrine with which we’ve been entrusted. We want to see the spiritual fruit that follows faithful labor for the Lord. Yet this reasoning assumes a larger understanding about human nature and what God is doing among His people.

‘Change,’ properly conceived, begins with a biblical conviction about the necessity of repentance. Repentance (metanoéō) signals a change in mind. This change isn’t merely an intellectual move. It suggests a reorientation in spiritual direction. Perhaps the best way to put it is to see repentance as one side of the coin of conversion. One turns from their trust in self and all that is not Christ (repentance), and they turn to place their trust in Christ (saving faith). Thus, the apostolic preaching to “repent and believe the Gospel” is the key to conversion.

Repentance is not only part of the act of conversion, but it’s part of the way of life which the Gospel makes possible. Some people think of this in terms of sanctification. More commonly, we speak of spiritual growth or discipleship. Regardless of terms, we’re referring to the process of learning from God’s Word, walking in the Spirit, and being conformed more closely to the image of God’s Son. Change, then, is taking place throughout our lives as God’s Word and Spirit chisel away at who we once were, helping us to grow more fully into the new nature given to us in regeneration.

An analogy that may be useful is thinking of change with respect to physical development. Infants possess certain physical qualities that gradually change in the aging process. Jesus himself was said to “increase in wisdom, and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). Stature here, I believe, is a reference to physical maturation. We recognize that there is a process taking place, under normal conditions, across a person’s life. When some changes don’t seem to be happening, we take note. When a 60-year old still has a full-head of hair, we marvel. When a six-month old hasn’t gained more than a few pounds since birth, the pediatrician intervenes. While genetics play a significant role in such instances, we have come to anticipate gradual physical change as being a normal part of life.

Similarly, a Christian understanding of change begins not with renovations to the church sanctuary or revising the By-laws. It begins with having a clear grasp of the renovation of the whole self that the Spirit brings. By extension, leaders must consider how effectively the church’s ministry is facilitating this spiritual change.

Vines & Trellises

Once one has a sufficient understanding of what Scripture says about change, we are then able to consider what we might call the “material or structural dimensions” of congregational life. This is difficult because the Bible appears rather silent about buildings, service times, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and much more.

The existence of such aspects in church experience doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unbiblical (contrary to biblical truth) simply because they’re extra-biblical (beyond Scriptural mention). God’s timeless truth takes on shape in historical and cultural contexts. When we move into life’s gray areas—areas where Scripture doesn’t specifically command something—we must determine how to live out our faith consistently with biblical principles, precedents, and patterns. The Bible says to preach the Word, but it doesn’t say how long precisely to preach each Sunday morning. Scripture commands husbands to love their wives, but it doesn’t say in what setting this instruction to love must always take place.

General revelation, historical precedents, and observing how people grow best helps fill in some of these gaps. If a congregation is used to hearing 15-minute sermons, it may become evident that this doesn’t translate into a sufficient engagement with the Word for the “Sunday-morning-only crowd” to grow. A gradual lengthening of the preaching component of worship may enhance the influence of the Word on a congregation. We may discover that setting aside a weekend a year for a couples retreat provides a nice break from the ordinary to challenge couples in a helpful way that passing remarks in a sermon do not.

Having grounded ourselves in Scripture’s commands, principles, and patterns, as well as supplementing that knowledge with a grasp of church history, the order of creation, and the starting points of our people, leaders are better able to consider what forms or structures best foster spiritual growth.

Another helpful illustration of these principles is the key metaphor offered by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne in The Trellis and the Vine (Matthias Media, 2009). The emphasis of New Testament ministry is the growth of the vines (individual believers) into the true vine (Christ). All that is essential for this task is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s Word. However, while we don’t technically need buildings, bulletins, or budgets to be a church, these serve a purpose in facilitating the growth of the vines. They function much like a trellis in guiding and ordering the growth of vines.

Buildings provide an established, secure, useful place to gather for worship, fellowship, and other ministry-related activity. They provide a visible reminder to the community of the presence of an assembly of believers. Bulletins, properly used, can help worship to be decent and orderly. They can communicate important happenings in the body from week to week. Budgets may engender intentional stewardship of God’s financial provisions. Certainly some qualifications attend the usage of all of these, but they are tools which have been developed in church history to facilitate the worship, service, and overall ministry of God’s people.

Leadership Insight*

Good leaders recognize that these tools don’t guarantee spiritual growth. In fact, if not careful, we may mistake the trellis for the vine. They are far easier to manage than vines which often seem to have a mind of their own (because they do!). However, with caution, prayer, and Scriptural reflection, sound pastoral theology requires consideration of the structures, tools, programs, and procedures that accord with sound doctrine, and thus support spiritual growth.

Leaders must try to identify the connections between the material aspects of the church’s life (structures, tools, policies, procedures, programs), and the spiritual development of God’s people (growth in holiness, fruitfulness, outreach efforts, healthy families). Much more could be said about why these connections exist, but I think we primarily have to become good observers of and listeners to those we serve in order to determine when and why change is needed, and then take steps to lead such change.

In the next post, we will consider the three different types of change, and the unique considerations that come with their implementation.


*At least one key leadership insight will be provided at the conclusion of each post.