“What learnings from serving many churches are you taking with you as you go back to serving one church?”
It has been a common question that ministry leaders have asked me over the last several months. While serving as senior vice-president of LifeWay, I was on a team that gets to serve tens of thousands of churches a year. Every week I spoke with church leaders and listened and learned from both their struggles and the places where they saw the Lord working. I was also apart of several large-scale research projects and benefited from the wisdom and expertise of the LifeWay Research team. I learned a lot that I am taking with me as I have moved back into the local church. After serving the broader Church for seven years, here are five learnings that I believe will be shaping my ministry for years to come.
1. Sadly, leaders can grow a ministry while their hearts grow cold.
I really wish this was not true because of the damage it creates, but leaders can lead and scale a ministry while their inner character is imploding. Leaders can build ministries while their faith and their families are deteriorating. Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing,” which means all that we build apart from Him is worth absolutely nothing in the end. Seeing ministry leaders who I respect implode has not caused me to think, “This will never happen to me,” but has given me a greater sense of my fragility. I need His grace to sustain me.
2. How a leader treats his/her team sets the tone for relationships in the church.
If we believe that leaders help set the culture of the church, then how leaders treat their team sets the tone for the relationships in the church. The famous “one anothers” found in Scripture give us a beautiful picture of what our relationships should look like: love one another, serve one another, submit to one another, forgive one another, etc. If leaders preach about the “one anothers” of the Bible yet don’t obey these commands in their own relationships with their team, they undermine their own sermons.
3. Discipleship apart from the Word may be informational or behavioral, but it won’t be transformational.
Because to be a disciple is to be a learner, churches can disciple people in all sorts of things. They can help people learn to change their behavior. They can help people learn lots of information about cultural issues. But discipleship that is Christian is not merely informational or behavioral. It is transformational. If we want our discipleship to be transformational, to change the affections of people, the discipleship must be grounded in the Word. Every study I was apart of at LifeWay found that engagement with the Scripture is the most important predictor to spiritual maturation.
4. Imperatives must be rooted in the Indicative.
Justin Taylor offered a pithy and helpful equation: “Imperatives – Indicatives = Impossibilities.” It is impossible for people to live the Christian life apart from their hearts being melted and motivated with the grace of God. In the Scripture we find the apostle Paul giving imperatives (commands), but these commands are rooted in the indicative—what Christ has already done for us.
Forgive as Christ has forgiven you, accept one another as Christ has accepted you, give generously because He who was rich became poor for you, and so on. Churches that preach commands (and they must be preached) without rooting those commands in what Christ has done enslave and burden people with a list of things to do without the power to live them out.
5. Culture is not changed or sustained until the beliefs and values are.
Church leaders can push hard and change some overarching church behaviors for a season, but the change won’t be sustainable if the behaviors are not rooted in values and beliefs beneath the surface. For example, a culture of developing leaders won’t exist until there is shared belief that ministry is for all people and that pastors are developers not doers and until there is shared values around the necessity of leadership development. Culture is only sustained when the practice of the church is deeply connected the collective beliefs and values of the church.