In 1982, my Catholic grandmother and stubborn, ex-military grandfather gave their lives to Jesus. The friends who had shared the gospel with my grandparents, invited them to attend their church which was just a few minutes from where they lived. It just happened to be an independent, fundamental, Bible-believing, King James only, ultra-conservative Baptist Church. Every Sunday you would’ve found my newly converted grandparents in the pews of this “old paths” church.
A day before the ball dropped in Times Square to ring in 1983, my mom gave birth to me in a South Philly hospital. My parents tried their best, but after two difficult years, they divorced, leaving my mom and I to live with my grandparents. Part of living with my baby Christian grandparents meant attending their IFB church with them every Sunday.
For 18 years I lived the IFB church kid lifestyle. My brother and I attended the church’s school, sat on the front row in every service, and wore a suit and tie even on Wednesday nights. Meanwhile my grandmother was deeply involved in serving at the church (almost every day), and Pop was a deacon, a Sunday school teacher and a “Three-to-Thriver.” I was preparing to go off to Bible college and took great pride in being known as one of the “preacher boys.”
If this has given you flashbacks or sparked PTSD, you’re probably waiting for the horrific plot twist of legalism, shallow preaching, or some scandal that was covered up. But, that’s not my story. Growing up in an IFB church was one of the greatest experiences of my life! My pastor preached the Word verse-by-verse. I admired my youth leaders and I know they truly loved me. There was never any scandalous activity committed by staff or deacons that had to be swept under the rug. Yes our church held to the standards of not going to the movies, ladies not wearing pants, and only ever using the AV 1611. For me and my family however, this was how church was supposed to be and we loved all of it.
Today, I am the Senior Pastor of a Baptist church in Northern Virginia. On a typical Sunday, we will sing contemporary worship songs, I will preach wearing a jean jacket, while I read from the ESV. How did I go from toting a Schofield, wearing wing tips, and waving hankies, to this? The complete journey is much longer than this one blog post can convey, but looking back, the easiest part was seeing what I didn’t want to be. The difficulty was in discovering who I wanted to become.
Over the last few decades, many have left the IFB, and sadly the majority cannot share the same positive experience I had growing up. The courage it takes to step away is tremendous, the fear of man is real, and the influence and friendships lost are a clear reality. My concern for those stepping away is not what you are leaving, but understanding and learning what you are walking towards. Identifying who you are as a leader is essential to building an effective ministry. Copying someone else can only take you so far, but a leaning into your true identity will sustain you for life. So, no matter where you are on your journey, let me encourage you to not just move away from something, but move forward towards something.
Move towards biblically relevant preaching
Whether your preference is expository, textual, or topical, seek to answer the questions that people in your church are asking. Questions like, “How can we have a good marriage?” or “How can I overcome my anxiety?” should shape our application of the text. Preaching with questions like these in mind is not giving people what they want, but it is understanding what they need. Communicating without a tie or from a plexiglass pulpit doesn’t make someone relevant. Sharing the timeless truths of God’s Word in a way that people will relate to is what brings relevance to your ministry.
Move towards bold innovation
Don’t just stop doing, start doing. We need a generation of innovators, creative thinkers, and dreamers who are willing to step out in their context and take risks. We must move past identifying ourselves as a group of rebels and move towards being a community of revolutionaries. Think big, be bold, and try something that may not work. For all the knocks against the IFB movement, they have a legacy of being risk-taking innovators. Tom Malone started a church in an old bar. Jerry Falwell invited Colonel Sanders from KFC to his church and had over 19,000 in attendance. Many purchased buses to pick up kids and families by the hundreds of thousands. My pastor held a drive-in service on Sunday nights in the summer, and after this past year we would all agree he was ahead of his time! I know those ideas are looked at as old-fashioned today, but they were cutting edge back in the day. They were not afraid, and though we wouldn’t dare duplicate some of these ideas, I would kindly ask what ideas are we moving towards that are bold and innovative today? Don’t just think outside the box, do something outside the box. There are many great leaders to connect with through the Idea Network who are bold, creative, and innovative. Their ideas are fresh, their perspective is positive, and their churches are moving forward. Instead of criticizing the past, let’s create a bold future!
Move towards strategic change
As a pastor, I understand that changes are best made gradually and deliberately. Change is hard, especially if you’re attempting to change something that you’ve preached as gospel in the past. Many leaders come to understand that change needs to happen in their church, either through the voice of a younger leader on staff, or by embracing a shift in ministry philosophy. However, for one reason or another, this change is often so incredibly gradual it is almost invisible.
Strategic change is employing a strategy to get you from where you are to where you want to be. We can’t hope to arrive in a different place eventually. We must begin to move towards intentional change with a clear strategy of how we get from where we are to where we believe God wants our church to be. There is wisdom in pace, but there is frustration in pacifying. Leadership is not attempting to make everyone happy, it is having clear direction, and moving people forward. What is your strategy to effect change?
Move towards personal identity
Be who God wants you to be. Freedom is not finding your identity in some else’s personality, preaching style, or leadership ability. Freedom is discovering who you are and being open about the leader God is developing you to be. It took me a while to understand this point, but I have learned I just need to be me. As I moved away from my identity in the IFB, I wasn’t sure where this journey would take me. Looking for a place to belong can be disheartening. However, I cannot let someone else choose my identity for me. I am a leader, a pastor, a father, and a friend. God just wants me to be me. He wants me to learn and grow in His Word, and to continue developing into a devoted follower of Jesus. This is my true identity.
So where are you on your journey? You may know exactly what you don’t want to be, and it’s time to pursue better. Will you move forward?
Pastor - Heritage Baptist Church - Leesburg, VA