Every church has its own culture, its own DNA. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I grew up visiting many churches. My parents were in a gospel singing group, and we traveled a lot. I always loved meeting new people from many types of churches. All of these churches had different-looking facilities, different traditions, and different ways of doing things. I always remember thinking that this diversity was a good thing. But no matter how different each church might have been, when church started—it was on! The one thing they all had in common was their love of worshiping Jesus and hearing the preaching of His Word. So how does a church’s culture become a bad thing? How does a church’s culture become a hindrance to its mission or even contribute to a church’s death?

Every church I have pastored had its own DNA. My first pastorate was a happy church. We loved people, enjoyed our faith, and had a passion to reach our community. We were a young church plant with a lot of enthusiasm. It was an easy church to lead. Everything centralized on the Gospel. My second pastorate, was a church replant from the ground up. It became a very balanced church with a passion for people who had been hurt by religion. The church oozed with empathy for others. We reached many people with addictions and mental health issues. More than anything else, we were authentic and real.

Then I moved to Chicago—and everything changed for me in ministry. When I candidated to become the new Lead Pastor, I told my wife, “There is no way I’m coming to this church. The transition needed is too big to turn around.” Yet God called us here and now I am finishing up my second year as Lead Pastor, and I can unequivocally say that our church is not the same church it was just a couple of years ago. Stoicism and liturgy have now been replaced with genuine expressions of praise and worship. Man-made preferences and regulations have been replaced with sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and gospel-centric preaching has led our church toward renewed hope, a revived spirit, and hope for the future.

Although I could cover many aspects of transitioning culture in a church, here are probably the three most critical decisions that I have made, that have had the largest impact on our church thus far:

1. Stayed sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leadership in your life- The best change is God-driven, God-led, and Gospel-centric. His timing is always perfect. As long as the change you are seeking to lead is guided by His hand, and not motivated by selfish desires, it will be a good change. Too often, we want to imitate another ministry. We see something that looks “cool” or we get an idea that we think will radically change our church for the better. We get excited and push the change through with little thought, prayer, or proper planning. We drive it forward without consideration of how the decision will impact the church family. The truth is, sometimes we are our own worst enemies. The truth is, too often our motives are selfish. We try to force change when we have done little to nothing to prepare our people to embrace the change. This is not leading change, this is driving change, and it will harm the body of Christ. This kind of change promotes division rather than unity. Let the change you seek to lead be bathed in prayer. Share it with your team. Let the idea marinate, and in God’s timing launch it with tremendous energy. But whatever you do, don’t get ahead of God!

2. Stayed sensitive to the hearts of those you lead- I love shepherding God’s flock. My heart is for God’s people and their welfare. However, if I’m not careful my pace can get too fast. I am driven by a desire to make a difference for the Kingdom, but I’m not doing a good job as a leader if no one is following. I have to learn to pace myself in ministry. I see things differently, therefore I have to give more time for others to see the value as I do. Patience and empathy greatly help with this. Most people are supportive of pastoral leadership. They love vision, purpose, and mission. They just want to know where you’re leading them. Dream big. Share vision. But make sure that as you lead, God’s flock is following.

3. Stayed focused on the Gospel mission- I’ve always said “The Gospel always wins!” It’s true! You never lose lifting up Jesus. You never lose making much of Jesus and His cross. Just keep hammering the hearts of men with the anvil of the Gospel. It’s alive and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces and discerns the heart. With patience and time, let the gospel become the vehicle of change. Make much of the mission. Make much of Jesus. Believers will get excited and roll up their sleeves to join in!

There are no shortcuts to spiritual health in a church, especially when the church is unhealthy. But these three principles I’ve given have helped our church immensely toward becoming a spiritually healthy body that is being conformed to Christlikeness more and more each day. As a pastor, it really is one of the greatest joys.

Tommy Thompson

Ashburn Baptist Church - Chicago

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