I did not preach yesterday morning. I was celebrating the wedding of my college roommate this weekend. In Detroit. In March. Anyway, while I did not preach this weekend, I was given the opportunity to speak to our local association’s pastor’s gathering last week. Here’s the message I gave them. If you are a leader in your local church, and you feel like your church could be more than it is right now, this is a message you’re going to want to catch. What I shared with the pastors last week was the secret to setting your church on the track of becoming fully who God designed her to be. Thanks for reading and sharing.
Becoming Who You Are
Have you ever tried to go somewhere blindfolded? Maybe someone’s done that to you as a kind of team-building exercise or an object lesson of some sort. How’d you do? I suppose it depends on where we are. I mean, if I’m at home, I’m going to feel fairly confident. I know where all of our stuff is—you know, minus all the surprises the kids leave in the floor—and feel like I could probably navigate my way around it to reach some goal without the benefit of sight. If you were to take me out of that environment and put me somewhere unfamiliar, though, that confidence level is going to drop like a stone. Even if you were to just put me in my front yard, I’d be moving around pretty carefully, not to mention slowly. It’s hard to get somewhere when we can’t see where we’re going.
But let’s say you do know where you’re going. And you’re not blindfolded. Is getting there going to be easier? While your first instinct might be to say, “Yes,” to that one, let me add one more little bit of information to the challenge here: You don’t know where you’re starting. If I were to take you to New York City while blindfolded, dropped you off somewhere random, removed the blindfold, and gave you a random address to try to find somewhere else in the city, even though you can see where you’re going—and technically know where you’re going—getting there is not going to be a very easy task until you have a whole lot more information than you do at the start.
Occasionally I’ve been driving somewhere with poor internet reception and been lost. When that’s happened, after I’ve pulled myself back together since that is about the biggest nightmare scenario I can imagine, I’ll call someone to ask for help. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of one of those calls. What’s the first question you ask when you pick up the phone and figure out what’s going on? You ask where the person is. And, after giving you the natural, snarky response of, “If I knew where I was, I wouldn’t be calling you for help!” the person is going to start giving you some street names or perhaps some exit numbers to help you zero in on their location. Why? Because you can’t get them to where they’re going until you know where they’re starting. This afternoon, I want to talk with you for just a few minutes about getting our churches where they’re going.
It’s funny sometimes to think about my perspective on the classes I took in seminary now versus then. Honestly, most of the classes I was most excited about then I’ve forgotten about almost entirely. But two leadership classes I took, that I considered then to be throwaways the seminary was making me take, are the two that have had what is perhaps the most significant impact on my ministry of anything I learned in that season. In one of them, while I’ve forgotten pretty much everything else the professor said—along with everything he made us read from the generally mind-numbingly boring leadership books—one thing stuck: It takes 3-5 years to change a church’s culture. In the other, the professor took us through a semester-long exercise in how to actually do that.
When I sat down at my desk for the first time as the pastor of a church, not having any idea what else I was supposed to be doing (besides normal pastor stuff, of course) I set about putting into practice what I learned in those two classes. The result was nothing short of a total revitalization of that church before revitalization was even a thing people were talking about. The rise of the revitalization movement over the past few years has been funny to me because I had always just thought that’s what you are supposed to do when leading a church. I had done it once and am in the process of doing it again. And that’s not to say I’m an expert at revitalization—I’m not—but that’s the only way I know how to lead. Well, of all the teaching and tips and tricks and tools you’ll find about revitalization out there nowadays, I think there is one idea that is absolutely fundamental to any kind of a revitalization process. It’s certainly not a magic bullet—those don’t exist—but you aren’t very likely to be successful without getting this one thing right.
I want to take you this afternoon to a passage of Scripture that has shaped my thinking on this idea more than just about any other. It’s a passage you are no doubt familiar with. I wasn’t so foolish as to think I was going to come in here and teach you something about the Bible you didn’t already know unless I went for something really obscure (which this isn’t). But I do want to give you a lens for thinking about your churches that is rooted in this passage that you may not have considered before in quite the way I’m going to present it. Grab your copy of the Scriptures and find your way to 1 Corinthians 12.
First Corinthians, of course, was written by Paul. And just for fun, whenever you read from Paul with your congregation, you can always joke that if they’ve ever hated followers of Jesus, Paul is their guy. He was so committed to hating followers of Jesus that he sought to round up all of them he could find and haul them off to jail…until he became a follower of Jesus himself. That’s just a fun little invitation for them to pay a little closer attention to what he has to say than they might have otherwise done.
Anyway, Paul covers a lot of ground in this first letter to the troublesome Corinthian believers, but the basic idea undergirding it all is how to keep the church united and on a Gospel-advancing track rather than a culture-advancing one. Starting in chapter 12, Paul begins talking with them about the force that drives that unity and holds it all together (spoiler alert: it’s love, but we’re not going to look at that chapter today). Love is the only force powerful enough to hold the church’s unity together in spite of the incredible diversity across its membership. Before he mentions that powerful force, though, he talks with them a bit about that diversity and how the church can function in light of it.
Listen to a bit of what he had to say starting 1 Corinthians 12:12: “For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all given one Spirit to drink. Indeed, the body is not one part but many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,’ it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,’ it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God has arranged each one of the parts in the body just as he wanted. And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable. And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect, which our respectable parts do not need. Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
Now, again, you’ve heard that passage before. You’ve read it. You’ve studied it. You’ve written about it. You’ve preached about it. You’ve been preached to about it (or, at least, if you haven’t been before, I’m taking care of that for you now). You know this passage. Some of you may have not even needed to open your Bible to follow along with me because you have it memorized. I get all of that. You know that Paul is talking about the nature of the unity amid diversity in the body of Christ. Every part of the body matters. No one part is more important than another part however it is we may structure ourselves and behave. Some may be more visible, but the less visible parts are just as important as the more visible ones. The way I sometimes illustrate this idea with my congregations has been to observe that while someone will go to a church without a preacher for a long time, they won’t go very long to a church that has nasty toilets.
Funny story: When we lived in Virginia, the local association stretched from near Richmond all the way to the North Carolina border. If you think the Stanly-Montgomery Association is big, you have no idea what big is. Anyway, I went to a meeting one time at one of our churches down near the border. Finding it was no small task. I’m glad I had studied the map ahead of time because not only did I not have any internet service on my phone to access a map, I didn’t have any phone reception either to call anybody for help. When I got there, this little, country church had managed to make the most out of its little space. There were four restaurant-style booths in the back of the church that functioned as the fellowship hall. Because of that, there were only about six rows for pews. There was no nursery to speak of, much less Sunday school rooms. And the bathrooms were in the back. And by, “in the back,” what I mean is that you had to walk out the front door, go around to the back of the building—through the grass—to a nasty room underneath the sanctuary. That particular night it was drizzling rain and the bathrooms didn’t have lights in them. There was a construction light sitting outside, plugged in to a cord that was running from the front of the church, illuminating the little window grate enough that with the door closed, you could just see to do your business. And the pastor had the nerve to wonder aloud to the group why no one in the community seemed to want to visit. I did manage to stop myself from shouting, “Put a light in your bathroom!” Spurgeon himself could have preached in that church, but until they addressed their facilities, it wasn’t going to grow.
Back on track. These verses have always meant a lot to me. I think the reason is that even though I’m a preacher and am therefore up in front of the congregation more often than not, I’m also an introvert. Like, a big introvert. No, seriously, I’m like a borderline “I-hate-people” introvert. And God decided to make a pastor out of me; go figure. These verses speak to people in your church like me to remind us that we matter in the church too. You have people in your congregations wondering what kind and even whether God has a role for them to play in the church when nothing they do seems to be noticed by anybody. These verses are a giant declaration of their worth. You should preach them at least once a year.
What I think Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to know beyond a shadow of doubt in this passage is that no matter what their particular gifts happened to be, God had a specific and special role for them to play in His body. Verse 18 really is the heart of this passage. Listen to that again: “But as it is, God has arranged each one of the parts in the body just as he wanted.” You are where you are (if you are living in some level of obedience) because God put you there. And He put you there because He wants you there. He wants you to make an impact on His kingdom that only you can make and only from that position. To put that another way, God made you unique on purpose. God made us unique on purpose.
But that’s not what I think you need to hear this afternoon. What you need to hear is that what Paul applied to your people individually in these verses also applies to your people corporately. That is, it is true about your church. This, at last, brings us to that thing you need to know if you are going to lead your church successfully in any kind of a project of revitalization. Just as your people need to know who God designed them to be in order to have the impact He designed them to have, your church needs to know who God designed it to be in order to have the impact He designed it to have. To put that another way, if your church is going to get to where God intends for it to go, you have to know where you are starting. Until we know who we are, we can’t become who we could be.
So then, who are you? And I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about your church. Who is your church? What is your God-given identity? What is it that God has created your church to be and do in the community where He has placed you? Now, if you’re listening closely, it kind of sounds like I’m talking about a mission statement, and I suppose I am. That’s certainly one of the major buzz words for churches in projects of revitalization nowadays. But in my own thinking and speaking about this kind of stuff, I’ve personally started to shift away from that word a little bit. Oh, churches still need a mission and vision. They still need a mission statement, and what I’m encouraging you to clarify is probably going to wind up functioning as your mission statement. But more than just a mission statement describing what your church is going to do, your church needs to know who they are. Because who they are is going to directly inform what God designed them to do. It will shape how God designed them to do it as well. It tells them where they need to go. In other words, your mission, vision, strategic process, and every other piece of the revitalization puzzle that we hear about so often today flows out of your identity as a church.
Here, though, is where we can run into some challenges. The biggest of these challenges is the fact that when it comes to our thinking on all of these kinds of things, we are implicitly told to start with the doing and not the identity. When we start our thinking with the doing piece—the mission statement—we are gently pushed in the same basic direction: The church is supposed to preach the Gospel to the nations. As a result, I’ve seen far too many churches and missions organizations and even whole associations who have crafted a mission statement of some kind because they’ve been told they should have one that expresses some flavor of, “We exist to advance the Gospel.” And to all of these my reaction is the same: Of course you do; you’re a church. A church that claims to exist to advance the Gospel is just about meaningless. There is not a church that doesn’t exist for that purpose. Of course you exist to advance the Gospel. That’s not the relevant question. The relevant question is how you were created by God to do that. Until you know who you are, you can’t become who you could be.
Your church is not my church. My church is not your church. God has created your church for a unique and specific purpose in His body. He designed you with a unique set of gifts and experiences and talents and location so that you can reach a certain group of people with the Gospel. Let me make a statement that you may not have thought about before and you may not even agree with, but which I am nonetheless convinced is true. There are people that your church was not designed to reach. Some of those people are ones that my church was designed to reach. On the other hand, there are people my church was not designed to reach. Some of those are people your church was designed to reach. My church is going to reach someone living in Troy with the Gospel very effectively. Albemarle is really outside of our sphere of influence as well. We have a few little tendrils that snake all the way to Norwood and Stanfield and Locust, but otherwise, something like 90% of our folks are in Oakboro. But even if your church is in Oakboro, there are people we were designed to reach that you weren’t and vice versa. And that’s all okay. It’s how Jesus has designed His church to work for the era we are in. The more good, solid, Gospel-centered churches we can have in a particular area who are diverse, yet committed to working in unity to advance the Gospel into the hearts and minds of the people in that community, the better.
But in order for that to happen, you have to know who you are. God may have arranged each one of the parts in the body just as He wanted, but if the foot doesn’t know it’s a foot and thinks it’s an arm instead, the body isn’t going to be healthy. Until you know who you are, while you may know the big picture goal, you’re not going to have any meaningful idea of how to accomplish it. And don’t try to feed me a line about how churches just need to preach the Gospel faithfully, because there’s a whole lot more that goes into a successful church than that. If you don’t know who you are, you’re not really going to know, much less understand what you are supposed to do. Until you know who you are, you can’t become who you could be. You’ll try things that have worked in other churches not because they are necessary to advance your own mission, but because they worked there. You’ll start programs that will fall flat and waste resources. You’ll spin your wheels. You’ll head off in directions God never intended for you to go because you’re honestly just shooting blanks in the dark. You might snag a soul or two along the way of all this fumbling about, but only accidentally. You can be as committed to advancing the Gospel as you want, but until you know who God made you do be, you’re only ever going to be mediocre in actually advancing it. Until you know who you are, you can’t become who you could be.
So then, how do you figure out who you are? You ask. Prayer undergirds the whole process. That should be a given. If you aren’t clear on that, you may be in the wrong line of work. But there’s more here. It’s not more important, but there is more. Don’t only ask God. Ask your people. This identity cannot come only from you. Your people have an identity that’s bigger than just you. This is especially true if you haven’t been there very long. Your trying to clarify your people’s identity without their input isn’t going to get you very far. They’ve been a part of that church longer and understand its culture better than you. So ask them about it.
Personally, I sit down with my leaders and use four evaluation questions to start to sift the chaff away from the wheat. I ask them what’s working. This gives them a chance to crow about all the things they like about the church. These will be things you’re going to want to build on. I ask them what’s missing that needs to be added. This will tell you a bit about the heart of your people when it comes to missions and actually advancing the Gospel. I ask them what’s confusing that needs to be clarified. Honestly, this question doesn’t often turn up too much information, but it does give them a chance to make sure there isn’t anything about the church they don’t understand. Finally, I ask them what’s not working. Asking this last avoids a lengthy gripe session, but the question itself helps to uncover points of brokenness both real and perceived.
Don’t ask these questions all at once. Set up a series of monthly meetings—perhaps your deacons meetings—and ask one a month until you are through them all. Once you have all your information, then you can start to sift through it together to see what some of the common themes are. Look for big picture ideas. You’ll probably see things like a sense of belonging or connection or family. You’ll pick up on themes like growing in Christ. There will likely be some sort of outward emphasis. The key thing here is that none of these are being imposed on your people from the outside. These are the things they have said about themselves. Once you have clarified what the big ideas are, you can begin to assemble them into some sort of a descriptive statement. Run this statement through a bit of wordsmithing, and you’ll have your identity. If you do it right, you’ll also have your mission. Because while, yes, your church exists to advance the Gospel, your mission statement should give someone a clue as to exactly how God designed you to do that. It’s not the same as the way He designed us to do it. Or the church of the guy sitting next to you. Now, you’re ready to begin meaningfully accomplishing the work God has given you to do. Until you know who you are, you can’t become who you could be. But now you know, and so the possibilities are nearly endless.
One last thing as a word of caution: Don’t think you are going to create this identity statement and magically the church will become who Jesus designed her to be. That’s not how it works. Remember the first lesson I learned in my leadership classes? Changing a culture takes 3-5 years. Until you know who you are, you can’t become who you could be. Once you do, it’s going to take a few years to slow the ship down in order to turn it around before you can start sailing full speed ahead. But knowing who you are will tell you how to get there. So, figure out who you are. God designed you specifically. You owe it to yourself, your people, and Jesus, to learn who it is and become that church to God’s glory and your joy. Until you know who you are, you can’t become who you could be. Now that you do, the world will never be the same.