By Billy Walker
In the late ’80s, there was an advertising campaign meant to revitalize sluggish automobile sales for GM. The famous tagline from those commercials was “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
Unfortunately, the slogan outlasted the car it was promoting, and it is still used to endorse products that have supposedly seen a generational upgrade worth a second look. Confession being good for the soul, I have resorted to using it myself at times to encourage attendance at something that was coming up at the church.
See, I pastor the church my father pastored for over 30 years, and, before that, it was my grandfather who had planted and pastored the church for the first 21 years in a newly developed community south of Detroit. Now, it’s me … did I mention we are all William Walker? There are a few in the congregation who have had three pastors but never had to learn a different name.
When I first was given the unique privilege of this position, I desired to establish the fact quickly; this was NOT my father’s church … or my grandfather’s. Change was needed and necessary, and it would begin immediately with my leadership. Wow, what a head case.
Experience has taught me that change simply for the sake of change doesn’t usually last and will at times implode on itself. However, change combined with purpose can provide potent potential; not just for temporary momentum, but lasting benefits with eternal significance. That is what happens when the changes we make have an outward concentration rather than an inward motivation.
Let me propose a hypothetical as to what has happened to churches in the past few generations. Not long ago, programs were the hallmark of any ecclesiastical operation. The more programs you had, the more successful you were. It was the program that attracted the people.
Therefore, the responsibility of a good member was to pray for the program, help put on the program in the best way possible, and respond to the unchurched people who came to be part of the program. Some had the gift of programming the program. Putting it together in such a way that it was inviting, encouraging, and meaningful while often giving those in attendance the chance to come to know Christ. And it worked amazingly well, for a long time!
But then something happened on the way to the latest and greatest church program. An increase in personal technology, combined with a jam-packed schedule, and suddenly this postmodern generation was finding other programs other places, including their own smart devices. BUT, is it possible the church (not yours or mine, but others … you know) kept running the same programs?
For a time, it seemed okay. But truthfully, the programs were typically drawing the same group of people along with some influx from other churches; they were still encouraging and meaningful, but with less of an outward look and eternal significance than what had been experienced previously.
As time goes on, the program becomes the priority, and the need of the people on the inside to continue putting it together takes precedence over those on the outside whose needs remain the same, but are no longer intrigued by the same church methodology that used to seem so attractive.
So, what’s the answer?
Let me share some insights our experience has garnered and some thoughts that others have been kind enough to communicate to our advantage.
1. Don’t Play the Blame Game
Finding the former pastor, group of congregants, or board members who began to direct the trajectory of a church in the wrong direction rarely is completely accurate nor does it do any good.
You’re going to be hard pressed to be able to find anyone who purposely said, “Let’s be completely inwardly focused and stop reaching people for Jesus.” It’s kind of like you saying, “Let’s make a mess of the garage.”
You don’t intentionally do that, but over time, it happens. Atrophy sets in and your garage no longer has room for your car. Don’t worry about attaching the problem to someone, worry about becoming part of the solution.
2. Action Follows Attitude
Paul encourages us “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5 CSB). What was the mindset of Christ? Constantly looking out for the needs of others. We must not forget that in the process of teaching and reaching His generation spiritually, Jesus was mindful and helpful in meeting physical needs as well.
Just as important in the meeting of those needs, is how Jesus was constantly thinking outside the norm (I so wanted to say, “Outside the Box” but I know you’ve heard that phrase so many times you’re ready to jump into said box).
Jesus used a McDonald’s Filet of Fish meal to feed thousands. He made His own mud pie in the healing of some, a caring touch for others, and still more had to embark on a journey before their need was met.
Our Lord didn’t care about messes (ever think about who fixed that roof in the house where friends dropped their buddy’s cot in on Jesus) and He didn’t care about the messed up (evidenced by taking His early Jewish disciples to a dinner hosted by a local tax man and some of his disreputes).
In speaking with His disciples in some of their last days of ministry together, Jesus said, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you” (John 13:12–17 CSB). Begin to change the attitude of the church, and the action will start to follow.
3. While Thinking Big, Start Small
Give your church some easy ventures into the region of outreach before tackling some of the bigger issues that may face you as you seek to enlarge the scope of your ministry.
Have a free car wash in your parking lot. Invite your people to buy a backpack and bring it to church, then have a giveaway Sunday. Adopt a local school and find out the teachers’ names. Have little gift bags made up and deliver them. You could do the same for your fire and police departments.
No special service, nothing asked for in return. Just reaching out into the community, letting them know your church cares.
4. Seek Others to Support You and Your Efforts
And in conclusion (I think a preacher is only supposed to have three points, but I’m taking liberty), too often we pastors think we can do it all, and maybe we can. But in the process, we usually exhaust ourselves, exasperate our wives and kids, and extinguish opportunities that God has for other people to become involved in building the church and His family. Prayerfully, personally, professionally, seek the support of others. Some in the church, and at least a couple of pastor friends outside of the church.
You may often feel the pressure of not wanting to rock the boat, and even fearing economic loss if some in the congregation are disappointed or become disengaged in a new perspective that is outreach driven.
Your support team will help encourage you through that period. It is their attitude and action that will help you move in the direction God has for you. My prayer is that His favor will be yours as you begin to shift your inward focus outward to a world so in need of our Savior.
BILLY WALKER (@billyhwalker) is a 3rd generation pastor of Calvary Church in Southgate, Michigan. He is the vice president of the Billy Walker Evangelistic Association, and is the president of the Pastor’s Conference for the Baptist State Convention of Michigan.