Well, I really don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does. These things usually wind up pretty ugly — and I’ve seen good elders try all sorts of things.
But I’ve learned a few things from my observations.
The first one is: You can’t make everyone happy — whether you change or don’t change or pretend not to have heard the question.
But you can reduce the pain. You can help the members through a difficult transition.
Second: You can’t solve this with a five-part sermon series. To a hammer, every problem is a nail. To a preacher, every problem can be solved with a good sermon series. Rarely is it true. (See Mark Love’s excellent post on the same subject.)
It’s tempting to preach on the importance of mission and how this change is essential to saving the lost — but you have no scientific evidence that a name change or ordaining women will really make a difference. And — much more importantly — your church hasn’t cared that much about evangelism in the past. What’s changed? Why is evangelism suddenly so important that I have to give up Christmas with my parents?
So maybe your real problem is that you only preach mission and evangelism when you want to push for a new name or other controversial change? Since mission and evangelism aren’t really in your church’s DNA, when the members hear a sermon on being missional, they know change is going to come. And so they aren’t listening to the sermon. They’re looking for the pipe organ to be installed.
So here’s what I think is the key: Stop associating mission and evangelism with controversial change. You should have been preaching evangelism and mission 20 years ago. You should be all about evangelism and mission. All the time! And so, long before you embark on controversial change that might split the church, figure out how to become a missional church. Work on spiritual formation — individually and corporately.
A church that needed decades to get messed up isn’t going to get healthy in a year. It’s going to take a lot of time. So you’d better get started. Don’t take a vote on the next big controversy until you’ve sorted out how to shape your congregation and its members into the image of Jesus. Do that first — not to justify female deacons but because it’s what elders are supposed to do. Stop playing politics, stop trying to make members happy, and start shaping your church into the Sermon on the Mount.
The other principle implicit in these disputes is the fact that people don’t leave a church that loves one another. Rather, set an example, but also set up events and structures that encourage love for each other. Not friendships. Not buddies. Love. You know, the thing where you serve one another. So church league softball, while not sinful, is not the cure. Neither is building a basketball court/fellowship hall. Rather, it would look more like —
- A robust small groups program in homes with meals and coaches for the leaders who’ve been well trained using proven materials. (Again: Saddleback is the place to go.)
- Service projects where people volunteer to work alongside each other on something that is important to them. Building a home for Habitat for Humanity would be good, but building a home for a church member would be much better. Let the members not only swing hammers but run the effort. Let the members take ownership — and they’ll learn to love each other as they carry sheetrock and pound nails together for a project they are passionate about. And they’ll learn to be less selfish. And they’ll get to bring their children along, who will get to see their parents living sacrificial, servant-hearted Christianity.
- Testimonies. Videotape members telling stories about how God changed their lives. Show them during worship. Watch the church bond as they learn a little something about each other and experience a moment of truly authentic Christianity. It’ll be powerful. The members need to see lives being changed — and the assembly is a natural place for this to happen.
That’s just a start, but you can maybe see the kind of thinking that you need to do. It’s not about intellectual persuasion. It’s not about threats. It’s not about submission to the elders. Rather, it’s about spiritual formation and learning to live in a better, truer story.
I mean, in the Churches of Christ, the usual story is: I’m going to heaven because I attend a church that is properly organized and worships properly. And we were raised in that garbage, and it’s drilled deeply into our brains. It doesn’t wash out easily. In fact, you can’t remove it — you can only on replace it with something better, something like: I see Jesus at work through my brothers and sisters at church — and to leave here would be like abandoning Jesus — because he is so plainly present and active and effective.
When mom calls and complains because your church claps and so has been “written up” by some wicked editor, your members won’t respond with a 10-page white paper on clapping. They’ll tell their parents about helping a poor church member down on her luck move into a new house that your sons and daughters helped you build. And that’s a far more effective answer.
You see, the genius of CENI (command, example, necessary inference) is that it tricks us into arguing over stupid stuff, like whether Amos 3:3 means you must leave the church if you disagree with a sermon.
(Amos 3:3 ESV) 3 “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?
Sorry, you have to read the KJV version for that to make any sense at all —
(Amos 3:3 KJV) 3 Can two walk together, except they be agreed?
(This is actually a bad translation and yet countless churches have split relying on the KJV error (and ignoring the context entirely).)
I mean, when the church is focused on serving, its priorities change. The Spirit is freed to help us find joy in serving. And so we grow in genuine, authentic agapē — not mere friendship.
Build a church that serves together — especially one that serves its own members as well as non-members — and the members’ Christian identities will change. Rather than defining ourselves in terms of rule-keeping, we’ll think of ourselves as extensions of Jesus on earth, acting as his hands and feet in continuing his ministry. We’ll be much more focused on the needs of others and becoming like Jesus rather than worrying over whether we’ll be damned if a woman is called “deacon.”
A new (old), true story replaces a lie — and mission is no longer a concept we trot out when we want to make a controversial change. It’s who we are. And we’re far more likely to attract people to our assemblies by being Sermon on the Mount people than by ordaining female deacons or whatever.
So all those lessons I just posted on being a missional church, they’re also about how to lead a church. And how to bring about needed change. And nearly everything else that matters in terms of church life. Because if we can’t get focused on mission, everything else will fall apart. It may take decades. But the church will die. It’ll split (or have a major exodus) first. And then those who remain will finally get their way as the church shrivels up and dies.