Copying Other Churches

One of the greatest temptations a pastor faces is the temptation to copy another church. From the mouth of the pastor, this temptation comes out with these words, “At my last church, we used to do …” Don’t be the guy who always talks about how you did things at another church. When you are that guy, you sound just like your church members who roll their eyes and say, “We’ve never done it like that before.” Every pastor hates to hear those words, so don’t subject your people to the same foolishness.

Another challenge for pastors is the fact that there’s always a trendy church in town. I’ve seen this in small towns, large towns, and big cities. There’s almost always one church that seems to attract unchurched people and disgruntled church people, and everyone knows this church is the trendy place to go. When you know about a church that appears to attract people effortlessly, it’s always tempting to try and do what they’re doing.

Many pastors find themselves tempted to copy other churches because pastors read books. Maybe it’s Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, or maybe it’s Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. You pick the book, the pastor, and the style. The same thing happens every day in churches across the United States. A pastor reads a book written by the pastor of a large, well-known church, and that pastor decides to make his church look just like the church he read about.

Closely related to this is the fact that many pastors have an artificial church experience during seminary. While I was a student at Southern Seminary, I attended Ninth and O Baptist Church. It’s a phenomenal church! The preaching and teaching are top notch. The worship is biblical and done with excellence. The fellowship is genuine. I watched many of my friends graduate seminary, leave Ninth and O, head out into a small church, and try to recreate Ninth and O at their new place of ministry. It never worked. It never will work.

How Churches Copy Other Churches

Sometimes churches try to copy other churches in location. You’ve probably seen this happen. I know I’ve seen it in my home town of Amarillo. When I was growing up, many churches relocated to the west side of town, several built dazzling facilities, and many thrived. However, some failed almost immediately. These churches relocated under the assumption that being on the right road in the right zip code would automatically lead to growth. They were wrong.

Some churches copy other churches by mimicking facilities. When I was a pastor in Oklahoma, my church was blessed with fantastic facilities. We had a brand new youth building and a brand new cabin at Falls Creek. We had a nice sanctuary and great children’s space. When I met with other pastors in the area, I would often hear them wish for our facilities. In our conversation, it was clear that these pastors thought the right facilities would magically produce growth. If they could only recreate our facilities, they would be more successful. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having the right facility is not a silver bullet for growth.

Maybe it’s not facilities or location that pastors try to copy. Maybe it’s style and structure. So many pastors assume that if they only had the right genre of worship music, or they only had the right ecclesiology, then they would be primed for growth. I’ll be the last to say that style and ecclesiology are unimportant. I’ll also be the first to say that if you are copying the style or structure of another church because you think it will automatically lead to growth, you are severely mistaken. The wrong style and structure may prevent you from growing, but the right style and structure are not silver bullets or magic beans.

Suggestions for Pastors

Here are five suggestions for pastors when it comes to dealing with the temptation to copy another church. One, when you’re the new guy, be slow to change your church so that you can look like someone else. There are plenty of good reasons to push for change in your church. Trying to recreate a past experience or trying to be just like the church across town are not good reasons.

Two, learn the history of your church. This takes time. Why do they offer the programs they offer? Why do they use the styles they use? Why are they located at the place they are located? History matters, and as the pastor you need to understand and appreciate the history of your church.

Three, study the context of your community. When a new missionary hits the ground overseas, we expect them to study the context and culture around them. They need to know the language, the religions, the leaders, the customs, the community. This takes time and effort, and as a pastor, you must put in the same time and effort. Be a missionary in your community. Study your context.

Four, learn how God has gifted (and not gifted) your church. Before you try to recreate a past experience or copy the folks across town, you need to be realistic about whether or not your church can pull it off. Do you have the leaders? Do you have the money? Do you have the musicians? Do you have what it takes to implement the change you want to bring about?

Five, remember the key to your ministry is the Word of God and prayer. This is what the apostles devoted themselves to in the book of Acts (Acts 6:1-7). They weren’t overly concerned about what was happening at the synagogue across town. They weren’t worried about the latest trends in music. They weren’t even primarily concerned about the immediate needs in their own church. They focused on preaching the Word of God and persisting in prayer. That’s your job. If you want to copy someone, forget the pastor across town. Copy the Apostles.

Perfecting Your Church

When you begin a new ministry at an established church, it’s sort of like moving into a new home. Someone else designed the place. Other people have lived in your new digs. And initially, you see a lot of issues that need to be addressed. You have a to-do list, and you’re ready to scratch everything off that list as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the comparison of your new church to your new home breaks down when you remember your new church is “occupied” by other tenants, your congregation.

These co-occupants make the process of fixing up your church difficult. For one thing, you are going to see some issues they have stopped seeing. Additionally, not only are you walking into a new church, but you’re also walking away from another church. Maybe you just left your home church, or maybe you just left your seminary church. It’s entirely possible that you are leaving a relatively healthy church to lead a relatively sick church. Also, if this is your first pastorate, your new church is probably smaller than the church you’re leaving. As you compare the church you left to your new church, things will be different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

On top of all that, you’re probably reading books written by pastors of other churches. These books may describe the biblical ideals for any church, or they may paint a rosy picture of a church that has it all together. It can be very discouraging to compare your new church to what you read in books.

How Pastors Try to Perfect Their Church

When you combine these factors, you frequently end up with a new pastor on a mission to perfect his new church. Sometimes the to-do list includes facility issues. Maybe the décor is outdated. Maybe the playground or the sound system needs to be updated. Maybe the carpet is nasty, and the paintings are old. As the new guy, you see the facility “warts” more clearly than your congregation who has grown accustomed to these eye sores.

Other pastors have procedural issues or structural issues on their to-do list. Maybe they want to reform how decisions are made, how scheduling takes place, and who holds authority. Maybe they want to change the ecclesiology, the staff, the elders, the deacons, the committees, or the teachers. Again, as the new guy in town, you will see problems in procedure and structure more clearly than those entrenched in the history of the church. Still, other pastors will paint with a broader brush and address the traditions and culture of a church. These can be challenging problems to solve, but many new pastors are able to see where their new church has issues in tradition or culture.

Criteria for Change

I am not in favor of new pastors simply being content with the status quo at their new church. Because of your education, experience, and newness, you will see problems more clearly than anyone else in the church. Some things need to be changed, and you’re the one person with the potential to lead necessary change. So my advice is, “Go for it!” Identify the changes that need to be made and get busy scratching issues off of your to-do list. But … But … But … Ask yourself these questions before you jump in.

First, is this a clear biblical issue or a mere matter of preference? If the issue is a clear biblical issue, get busy. If the issue is merely a matter of preference, slow down. Pray for wisdom, and continue to the next two questions.

Second, will you be present to see this change through the entire process? The process of change depends on what is being changed. New carpet and new ecclesiology require different approaches. That means you need to think through the change process from beginning to end, and you need to ask yourself if you are going to see the change through to the end. Will you address the problem? Teach about the problem? Lead through the problem? And fully implement the solution? If so, get busy. If not, slow down. Pray for wisdom, and continue to the last question.

Third, is this issue a hill you are willing to die on? For many issues, you won’t have to fight, much less die. However, you should never underestimate the potential resistance to any change. Even if you don’t have to fight, be prepared. If you don’t want to fight for the change, slow down and pray for wisdom.

Truths to Remember

After you’ve asked and answered these three questions, you’re still not ready to begin perfecting your church. Before attacking your to-do list, remind yourself of these five truths. First, you will never have a perfect church. If your goal is perfecting an imperfect church, stop what you’re doing. Perfect by-laws, biblical ecclesiology, and relevant programs will not change the fact that your people are sinners led by a sinner.

Second, remember that your church was around long before you showed up and they’ll probably be around long after you’re gone. As much as you think they need you, they’ve managed without you in the past, and Jesus can take care of them in the future. This should not prevent you from making changes that will benefit your church, but it should make you more cautious.

Third, don’t expect an entire group of people to conform to your personal preferences. This goes back to the question of biblical issues vs matters of preference. Pastors are called to serve with humility, not dictate from on high. In matters of preference, be willing to defer to your people.

Fourth, your preaching must not become focused on confronting issues you want to see changed. Your job is not using your bully pulpit to push for changes you want to see happen in your church. Your job is to preach the Word without apology.

Lastly, don’t try to impose every book you read on your congregation. I’ve seen this happen too many times, and it’s always a disaster. As the leader, you should read plenty of books, and you should always have an eye toward improvement. Nevertheless, don’t bludgeon your people with every book you read.