The Elder and Change

by Dick Alexander

Every elder wants to help shepherd a living church, not a dying one. Yet many miss a critical aspect of the job.

Strong, vibrant, growing churches are both Biblically sound and culturally in-tune.  A church that loses either half of that equation dies.  Entire denominations have given up on the truth of Scripture and are empty sepulchers.  But the landscape is also littered with dead and dying churches that preached the gospel till their final breath, but did it in a polyester leisure suit.  A church that loses its connection to the Word loses its power; a church that loses its connection to its culture loses its audience.  Both must be concerns of elders.

Culture is changing rapidly.  One hundred years ago culture was more static, more predictable.  But by 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock that the only constant is change.  And that was nearly a half century ago.  This means any church that is not constantly making appropriate changes will likely not be here in 20 years.  Maybe not in 10.

Good church leaders don’t apologize for changes in church programming, structures, and worship forms.  They create a culture of change, where ongoing change is expected.  Vibrant churches make continuous changes that are well-conceived, well-communicated, and well-implemented.  Change is a way of life.

I remember thinking some years ago that our church was in a period of transition.  Then the realization came that going forward we would always be in transition.

So where are elders in all of this?  Honestly, most elders are better at keeping the church on track Biblically than culturally.  Part of this may be that elders are, by definition, older, rather than younger.  Many are long-time church members and love their church “the way it is.”  And they hear, sometimes vociferously, from other long-time members who like their church the way it is, or more problematically, who want to take it back to a former time that is gone forever.

Often tension arises between elders and staff over new initiatives.  Staff propose a grand new idea that never gets off the ground with elders.  The staff is deflated, and the elders frustrated or disappointed.  The staff may not have given appropriate respect to traditions or a reasonable pace of change, and may have been unrealistic.  The elders may have been short on vision, a sense of mission, and maybe just short on courage.

Elder work involves governing.  Thoughtful elders aren’t chasing every ministry fad.  Sometimes good governance sets limits and says no.  On the other hand, they are constantly seeking new ways to fulfill our urgent mission.  Elders who want the church to have a future will be asking questions like:

  • How are we going to improve what we’re doing now?
  • What new initiatives will we launch this year, especially in outreach?
  • What will we quit doing that is no longer effective?

On one side, elders are partners with staff in constantly seeking more effective ways for ministry. On the other hand, they are guides to the congregation in helping communicate the necessity and rationale for innovation.

Elders of vibrant churches don’t resist change – they require it.  Any change is risky – some will fail.  But it’s like snow skiing – if you never fall, you’re not getting better.  All good leadership groups have a respectable number of failures noted in their minutes.  After a few years they are good stories to laugh about.

Churches are sometimes hamstrung by dissatisfied members.  Maybe the most deadly words spoken in elder meetings are, “We can’t afford to lose anyone.”  Every significant change, especially those centered on outreach, will cause some to leave the church.  We let them go with tears, but we let them go.  They will find another church – they won’t go to hell.  But someone else might if the church doesn’t connect with today’s world.

Guided by the Spirit and the Word, capable elders shepherd a church in a dynamic, life-giving pathway of service.  It’s not only good now, but it helps ensure there will be a church for their grandkids.

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