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When it comes to leading a strong ministry and building a healthy church, it takes more than solid theology or smart strategy. In fact, it takes a combination of those, plus the Spirit’s leading and empowerment. I think of these three as pillars of a dynamic ministry.
Every church needs to be led by a pastor with a strong ecclesiology—a strong theology of church and mission. Out of our ecclesiology flows our mission, in fact. The mission doesn’t change. Jesus defined it in the Great Commission and has never revised it. How you see the story of the church unfolding in the New Testament should have a lot to do with how you lead the church today.
A Strong Ecclesiology
My ecclesiology encompasses the truth that Jesus founded the church Himself during His earthly ministry. It wasn’t “born” on Pentecost. It was born when the first apostles followed Jesus.
The church is local and visible. While I appreciate the Apostles’ Creed, I also fear that the point about believing in the holy catholic (universal) church has shifted our focus away from the local, visible body, which is where the mission of Jesus gets organized in a visible, tangible, effective way.
The church will continue its mission, in the protection and power of Jesus, until He comes again. The church can’t and won’t fail. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it. While its easy to point out what’s wrong with the church, this core conviction motivates me to celebrate what’s going right with the church.
The New Testament presents a church that gathers and scatters. They meet in temple courts and from house to house. Sunday’s service matters. It’s a redemptive gathering of a covenant community to worship and to witness. Small groups matter just as much. Call them missional communities, house churches or Sunday school classes, they matter as much as the gathering, but not to the exclusion of it.
The New Testament church is led by shepherds. I love the image of the flock under the care of its shepherds, who answer to the Great Shepherd Himself, Jesus. He is the head of the church. He has pre-eminence, and pastors need the freedom to lead strongly while being accountable to the Chief Shepherd.
I could go on, but the way we build a healthy church, even if it is an organic movement of people gathering in a movie theater and in homes around the community, is determined by our biblical view of the church.
A Wise Strategy
One of my pet peeves is what happens when a church leader talks about a smart idea, a good strategy or a sweet system. Inevitably, some critics line up to point out how “man-made” methods and marketing strategies and systems are evil and how leaders who develop them must have no strong theology at all. It never fails. Every time we publish an article on Pastors.com designed to help modern leaders face modern problems in their modern context, accusers show up in the comments to point out how Jesus or the Spirit or the Bible wasn’t mentioned, even though the article is about strategy with an assumed strong theology undergirding it.
The fact is, I need to know about systems and strategies, and I’m convinced that thousands of churches are stuck today with a really strong theology but no strategy for engaging the culture and making disciples. The fact is, you need healthy systems for accomplishing the timeless, biblical mission of making disciples. For example:
- You know you should develop leaders, but what’s your leadership ladder?
- You know you need to spread the word, but how are you equipping the saints to do so?
- You know you need to challenge people to take a next step, but have you defined the next step?
- You want everyone to catch the vision, but have you articulated it an understandable way?
These are strategy questions, and there are plenty more where they came from. Don’t resort to juking leaders with a “just follow Jesus, just trust the Spirit, and just preach the Word” response. You may mean well, but you’re crippling the church when you do so.
Be harmless as doves. But be wise as serpents too. Develop a strategy for accomplishing the mission.
The Power of God
Some churches have a strong theology and a good strategy but are still stuck. Sometimes it’s because we’ve left out the third pillar of a strong, healthy ministry: the power of God. Having defined our theology and developed our strategy, it is still absolutely imperative that we go forward with an attitude of complete and utter dependence on the Spirit of God to bear fruit through us.
We can set the stage, arrange the chairs and roll out the red carpet, but we cannot save people. This is a work of God.
And I’m not urging us to tack this onto the end. Just because I’ve listed it last doesn’t mean it’s least in importance. Leaning on the power of the Spirit of God is essential as we study the Scriptures and form our theology as well as when we’re creating the strategies to help us fulfill the mission in our present ministry context. His job, in fact, is to shed light on the teachings of Jesus as we study.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a guy who would likely disagree with most of what I write about, but I love his words. Shelton Smith said, “The difference between mediocrity and excellence is midnight oil, elbow grease and the power of God.” That is so true.
If you want a strong, healthy, balanced ministry, find its definition in the New Testament, develop a strategy that works in your present context, and start and finish with trusting the Spirit of God’s empowering presence.
Brandon Cox has been a pastor for 15 years and is currently planting a church in northwest Arkansas, a Saddleback-sponsored church. He also serves as editor of Pastors.com and Rick Warren’s Pastors’ Toolbox, and authors a top 100 blog for church leaders. He’s also the author of Rewired: Using Technology to Share God's Love.
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