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This past Sunday I spoke at a local church on the topic of Transition. They are welcoming a new pastor into their midst. This is the second post outlining what I shared. In the previous post I outlined how everyone is in some kind of transition. Much of what I have shared comes from lessons learned as a member of a search team seeking a pastor for a community just a few years ago. Go to this link if you would prefer to listen to this message, A New Kind of Transition, online.)
What Pastors Want
To the best of my knowledge, no pastor in his right mind wants to lead a church community by himself (or herself). If they understand their role biblically, they operate out of their gift, not our of their position. Most pastors (and most evangelists, prophets, teachers, and apostles: See Eph. 4) want Jesus to lead and the Body of Christ to grow in maturity. They want Jesus to be the center of every gathering, whether it is formal or informal.
I believe the biblical model and Jesus’ instruction is for pastors to operate as part of a team. They are one of many gifts of leadership for the growth of the Body of Christ. Paul understood this well. Even when he did not work closely with the itinerant preacher Apollos, Paul understood that each has an important contribution to make.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.” (1 Cor. 3:6)
Jesus is causing us all to grow. When we recognize and affirm the gifts to the Body of Christ in their proper perspective, growth will occur not only in numbers, but also in the character of the members. That growth will also increase the influence of a worshipping community. As we love God and love neighbors, understanding that the image of God is imprinted on every person whether they are a Christ follower or not, we will treat every person with dignity in our witness and service to a needy world.
The goal is a community that both loves God and loves their neighbors, both global and local. If we sacrifice this primary focus for other goals, such as “church growth”, we become neglectful of Christ’s mission. Recall from a previous post where I quoted David Bosch:
“Christ’s Church does not have a mission; Christ’s mission has a Church.”
When we follow Christ’s mission first, the leadership of our community will follow his principles for growth and our community will grow deep in character and wide in influence.
How does that happen?
In the previous post I promised to share a few principles for growth that I learned from a father figure, Loren Cunningham, the founder of Youth With A Mission. My wife, Mary, and I have served with YWAM for over 25 years. Loren is a spiritual father to me because he has encouraged me and prayed for me at decisive moments in my life. When asked what I wanted to name the ministry God was calling me to establish in YWAM, a Centre of the University of the Nations, I timidly proposed: Student Mobilization Centre? Loren said: “Avec Courage! Say it with courage, John Henry!”
Then during an intense time of prayer in 1996 with the International Leadership Team of the University of the Nations, we were all laid out on the floor crying out to God for the future of the university and God’s dream for the nations. Loren knelt down and placed his hand on me and whispered, “Receive Your Inheritance.” He quoted scripture and prayed from 2 Chron. 16:9:
”For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show his might in behalf of those whose heart is blameless toward him.”
Three Principles for Growth
Loren shared these three points of fatherly wisdom with our YWAM Leadership a few years ago. Interestingly, George Isley, my pastor and spiritual father who went home to be with Jesus five years ago, exemplified these principles in a small church community in Upstate New York. I celebrated George’s life and ministry in a recent post.
These principles stand together like a three-legged stool; they work together as an integrated whole. I commend these three principles to you and for any community that desires to grow:
- Freedom in the Spirit – Every individual, young, old, male, female, must have freedom to hear from God. But we must also obey. This is the pattern: God speaks, we interpret, and then we apply. We may make mistakes, but that’s okay. That’s how we grow. However, this freedom is not in isolation; it’s in a community with elders.
- Spiritual Eldership – To be a spiritual elder, you do not necessarily need to be older. Paul’s disciple Timothy was relatively young, but he had maturity. Elders have a breadth of experience and spiritual maturity. They are submitted the Lord and one to another. They do not stomp on new vision, they test it and seek God about it. They lead primarily through prayer, influence, and relationship. They fulfill the scriptural criteria in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1, which is really unremarkable. It says they should not drink too much or beat up people. Does that imply the rest of us can get drunk or beat up people? No! There are two characteristics that are important for our discussion: First, in those texts it says elders must be “able to teach.” They should be investing in others and able to communicate through godly example the gospel message. Second, elders must be “hospitable.” This term comes from the Greek word “xenophilo”, which means “a lover of the new, the strange, the different.” Spiritual Elders need to be open-hearted toward new vision. And they need to be able to coach their group to test the word to see if it is from God and apply it in the context of the whole group. They do not exercise authority over others, they serve. The greatest, as Jesus said, is the servant of all. Elders are open-handed, giving way for Spirit-led vision, and they serve well.
- Relationship – Elders should only intervene after appealing through relationship. They need to be mature enough to wait for the right timing, and the right approach. The danger in any community is when structures dominate. Those structures and policies tend to take a position above the importance of hearing from God. Structures and legal boards are necessary to hold elders accountable in all legal and financial matters. However, if elders fail to lead out of relationship, they tend toward legalism and hierarchy that is not godly. No leader is more valuable or important than another. Leaders are called to salute the dignity, value, and equality of every person. The functions of the various ministry gifts God has given us may be different, but the value of every individual is equal.
When we work with each of these principles, our community and our people will grow. However, true spiritual growth in community, the kind of growth that goes deep in character and wide in influence, will not occur when there is only a single leader or when there is formal board that leans on positional authority and policy rather than the gifts of the Spirit. Positional authority is the mark of a bureaucratic institution, which tends to take power away rather than encourage the people who are created in the image of God and spiritually gifted to join His mission.
The Mission of God
I recently finished reading (and discussing in our monthly book group on the University of Wisconsin campus) the book: The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher J. H. Wright . In future posts, I will be unpacking much of this important read. For now, let me conclude by saying a growing community is led by a team of servant leaders who are giving freedom in the spirit for anyone to hear from God and obey. A growing community sees their primary goal as the Mission of God, their highest operating principle as relationship, and their God honoring principle of honoring the value of every person.