Imagine this scenario that is all too real:
A family who has not been to church in years pulls into your parking lot. The husband works with a member of your church who has been faithfully proclaiming and embodying Jesus to this man for years. Invitations to attend church have been offered many times, but never taken up on. But things have happened. His marriage of ten years is struggling. It is taking a toll on the children, especially the oldest who is in 2nd grade and having behavioral problems. They show up to your church. This family, every member of it, needs the gospel. They need a big whopping vision of glory that eclipses every other glory that competes for their affections. They need a Savior who welcomes and comforts suffers and sinners alike. They need to find a community of compassion and grace that immediately alleviates their trepidation and makes them feel at home.
So what will they find?
Will they find people welcoming them as they come into the building? Will they spot clear signage helping them make their way around or will it feel like an insider’s club?
Will they find helpful volunteers as they seek to take their kids to a children’s ministry location? Is it secure? Will they feel comfortable? Are the rooms clean?
Are the teachers and volunteers trained, equipped, and resourced to lead well?
Does the coffee taste like it was heated up from last Sunday or is it fresh, tasty, and available in abundance?
What will they experience in the worship service? Are they welcomed and invited to give some information on a card so you can follow-up with them?
Is the worship filled with gospel-rich lyrics and easy to sing? Is the message Christ-centered with clear help for applying it in their lives?
When they leave that day, what is your plan to follow-up with them? Do you have systems that help move the family into the life of the church to get connected in relationships, grow in their faith, and receive care/help for things they face in their lives, or—in this family’s case—their marriage?
Perhaps the best question to ask is this: Doesn’t the weight of this family’s need for the gospel demand all our systems function is a way that will help ensure they hear and experience it unhindered? The resounding answer better be “Yes!!”
You see, pastor, most of the questions asked about this family’s experience have to do with practical and effective leadership decisions. Yes, the gospel is the most important message and experience for that family to have when they attend, it is the water for which they thirst. But the systems, processes, communication, structures, and pathways you design are the channels that deliver that water.
Deep gospel-centered commitments and strong practical leadership and systems do not have to conflict.
To be theologically-sound and care about leading a practically-sensible church is not an oxymoron. Too often those in Gospel-Centered and Reformed circles (my tribes) are scared of words like “leadership,” “excellence,” or “best practices.” How do I know they are scared? Because I have talked to countless pastors who find their churches stuck and themselves frustrated, but are afraid of doing anything practical to fix it. These concerns aren’t even limited to my tribes; many pastors struggle with a theological-practical balance.
When I talk about basic leadership with pastors I know, you see the light bulbs come on, but it is often followed by a question like, “How do you make sure you don’t become too much like a business?” Some form of this question usually follows a discussion about clarifying the mission with specific language or sharing that vision regularly so the congregation understands it. Also involved is the creation of systems that move people from point A to point B in a discipleship process, or even how to begin changing the culture of a stagnant church so it can move forward.
These are really just basic organizational principles that are not unChristian nor relegated to businesses only. But unfortunately, too many pastors feel like these insights and helpful tools are off-limits to them in order to avoid the label of being an “attractional” church. Instead, many pastors—gospel-centered, Reformed, and others—keep preaching incredibly rich sermons without knowing how to mobilize the same people sitting there to engage in the mission of God.
Pastors continues to struggle to create clarity with language around a mission. They struggle with how to lead meetings, plan ahead, create measurables, or develop, empower, and delegate to other leaders. They dismiss the importance of ministry systems that move people towards a strategic plan for discipleship. They know how to parse Greek, but not how to lead. This must change.
How can it change? Here are three starting points:
Read and learn leadership.
The old adage “leaders are readers” is absolutely true. I would broaden it and say, “Leaders are learners.”
Find pastors and churches like yours who are ahead of you.
You are not the only person who has been in your situation. There are pastors who have been where you currently find yourself. If you are in a small traditional church looking to grow, there have been people where you are. If you are in a large contemporary church trying to lead the church toward deeper theological commitment, there have been people where you are. You do not have to invent the wheel. Find the pastors and churches who have been where your church currently is and seek to learn from them.
Stop apologizing for wanting to lead effectively.
You do not have to choose between leading well and being theologically sound. You don’t have to fear what others in your tribe will think if you have a book on leadership that wasn’t published by a Christian publisher. It will be okay. Stay theologically grounded, keep preaching the gospel, and seek to be a pastor that not only feeds the sheep well, but leads the sheep well. All to the glory of God.
Erik is the pastor of The Journey Church outside of Nashville, TN. Erik has written three novels, multiple Bible studies for Threads, The Gospel Project, & Bible Studies for Life, and served on the Advisory Team for the best-selling Bible study: Explore the Bible. He and his wife, Katrina, have three kids: Kaleb, Kaleigh, and Kyra.