Pastor Brad Powell reveals how to move your church from the milk of tradition to the meat of truth.
Written by Sean Fowlds
In 1990, Brad Powell took over Detroit's Temple Baptist University. At one time the church boasted one of the ten largest Sunday schools in America, but when Powell took over it was a declining community that had lost 90 percent of its congregation. Today, the re-named NorthRidge Church is a thriving congregation of more than 12,000. In his new book, Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping, Powell shares hard-won insights from his experience.
With refreshing humility, Powell encourages readers: "If God could use me to lead a transition, He can certainly use you. No matter what your church is presently experiencing, there is hope."
We caught up with Powell soon after his church—recently recognized by the Church Report as one of the top 50 most influential churches in America—had hosted its annual leadership conference.
Ministry Today: Your annual church conference earlier this year had a "hot sauce" theme where you said the church needs to be "spiced up." What exactly did you mean by that?
POWELL: The idea was taken directly from Jesus accusing the church at Laodicea of being lukewarm in Revelation 3:15-16. Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18 that He would always be building His church and that the gates of hell wouldn't prevail against it. That obviously doesn't match the reality of the American church, where 94% are declining rather than prevailing. Today's church is not the "hot" kind that Jesus preferred.
The problem is with us. We're not displaying the fire that should be ours when genuinely empowered by God's Spirit, standing on His truth and seeking to partner with Jesus.
Ministry Today: What are some of the challenges pastors encounter while trying to create change and how do you avoid compromising?
POWELL: One of the greatest challenges stems from believers standing against change. Unfortunately, people have fallen so in love with the way they have been doing ministry that they would rather fail in fulfilling the Great Commission than to change. However, the church must fully embrace the changing of its practices when necessary to fulfill godly principles. The great challenge of the pastor leading transition is to help other people see that change is necessary because they need to be committed to truth rather than traditions.
The way you avoid making compromises begins with a foundational understanding that God's truth is the value. Too many people make growth or relevance the value. This is a huge mistake that will always lead to compromising God's truth. Growth and relevance are both worthless if we compromise God's truth, for then we have nothing eternal to offer people.
Ministry Today: What is wrong with the church today and how can it be fixed?
POWELL: The church is trying to communicate God's truth in the langauge of past cultures instead of today's culture. As a result, the church has become a museum of what God once did rather than a dynamic mission reflecting the presence and power of God today.
We believe that the Book of Acts presents the church as it's supposed to be today, not as it once was. The church can be fixed if we get back to following the example of Christ. He delivered heaven's truth in the language of that day. We need to do the same.
Ministry Today: You turned around a church that was greatly declining after decades of growth. What was the most challenging "sacred cow" to tip?
POWELL: I needed to get people to see that they had sincerely fallen in love with the wrong things. The key was not seeing them as the enemy or attacking their history as so many pastors seeking to lead change do. I needed to highlight their heritage and then help them see why they were no longer making the same impact.
Of course, every church has both weeds and wheat. Those believers who were truly committed to pleasing Jesus and fulfilling His Great Commission ultimately came aboard. Those who were more interested in tradition or preserving a church that they were comfortable with never came aboard.
Ministry Today: You define "the art of sacred cow tipping" as the skill of successfully moving churches from the milk of traditions to the meat of truth. How are traditions bad?
POWELL: Traditions are neither bad nor good. Traditions are simply behavioral patterns formed over time through repetition. Of course, they were used repetitiously because they were once effective. The problem is that people begin valuing traditions so much that they fight to preserve them even when they are no longer effective, preventing the church from fulfilling its God-given assignment.
Ministry Today: How can churches avoid becoming spiritually impotent while becoming culturally relevant?
POWELL: Churches stay potent by remaining firmly committed to the truth. They become impotent in two ways: they either change God's truth by watering it down, or they become so entrenched in their traditional forms of doing ministry that they make communicating the truth impossible in this ever-changing culture.
Ministry Today: What are the obstacles to momentum? How does one maintain the momentum once it has been built?
POWELL: Avoid needless change. It's difficult to gain speed while cornering. And yet, many pastors and leaders are changing the direction of their churches after every conference they attend or every new book they read.
Another hindrance to momentum is refusing to change failing strategies. Ultimately, there is no way to move forward as God's church if we are not clearly and effectively communicating God's powerful truth in a way that people can hear and understand.
Ministry Today: You write about creating a ministry charter to help leaders transition to effectiveness. How does the process differ for the leaders of existing churches versus church plants?
POWELL: When planting a church, you get to create the ministry charter on a blank sheet of paper. You have no precedence or practice to help people work through. On the other hand, an existing church must do so in full recognition that the church has a history and seek to build off of it. The best way to do this is by calling upon the values of past leaders.
I did this with the beloved, long-term pastor of our church. Though he had been with the Lord for fifteen years and followed by two others before I became pastor, he was still the revered spiritual leader. Therefore, I sought to quote him to show the validity of my leadership and our new direction.
One thing he had been quoted as saying was "our methods can change but our message must never change." This obviously became very important as I sought to help the church change methods that had become as important to them as the message.
Ministry Today: Your church is located relatively close to a huge metropolitan area. How does your advice relate to churches not located close to a major city or large population center?
POWELL: It is absolutely unaffected by location. The reason is simple. I'm not advocating that people do church like we do church. In fact, we say just the opposite. We don't believe anyone should do church just like us. After all, they don't have the same demographic, history or leaders. And yet, most church conferences are about offering a model for how to do church.
Our principles are valid in helping all churches and leaders move through change in their setting as they seek to become all God has called them to be. We believe the only reason God has allowed us to experience such a dramatic and successful transition is to give hope to other churches and leaders. If it could happen to our church, it could happen at yours.