Orginally published on Monday, January 08, 2007 at 7:26 AM
by Todd Rhoades
Pastor Brad Powell believes that the church is the hope for the world… with this one caveat… when it’s working right. Here’s the problem: Most churches aren’t working right. As a matter of fact, over 90% of American churches are in a state of decline today. And that state of decline has many pastors confused, frustrated, and ready to quit. Brad Powell knows what it’s like to want to quit. When he became the pastor of NorthRidge (formerly Temple Baptist Church) near Detroit, the church had actually been in a state of decline every year (except two) since 1955. They had literally stopped reaching people effectively for over two generations. Something had to change or the church would soon decline its way into oblivion.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Brad. He shared a little of the Temple Baptist/NorthRidge story and how they were able to transition from a dying church locked in a pattern of cultural irrelevance, to an exciting, contemporary church communicating God’s Word to over 12,000 people in their services every week.
Temple Baptist’s ‘Glory’ Days
Temple Baptist’s history was grand and glorious. And very conservative. One of their early pastors, J. Frank Norris, was one of the most controversial figures in the early fundamentalist movement in America. He was actually kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for attacking the SBC’s ‘slide into liberalism’… during the 1920s! But Norris spoke the language of the community; and Temple Baptist thrived.
His successor, G. B. Vick, structured Temple around the innovation and success that Norris had started. Vick was instrumental in developing the Baptist Bible Fellowship, which had over 4,000 affiliated churches in its heyday. Vick also served as president of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO. Temple Baptist was the flagship church for both the BBF and the college; and was recognized as one of America’s largest churches, with over 4,400 in attendance back in 1954. Temple was one of our country’s first megachurches. These were the ‘glory’ days.
Locked in a Pattern of Irrelevance
Fast-forward to 1990. When Brad Powell arrived on the scene there was one big problem. This church, grand in history, was dying. The average age of church attenders was 57. But the problem reached much deeper: Many of the people left at Temple Baptist still believed their church was great, and that the decades-old philosophy of ministry at the church was biblical. According to Powell, “We were locked in a pattern of irrelevance.”
Something had to change; and the story of Temple Baptist Church (now NorthRidge Church) is one of the most dramatic stories of church transition ever recorded. Powell knew that the church had to do what it did some fifty years ago: speak in a relevant manner to the culture they found themselves in today.
The first step was to convince the people of Temple Baptist that truth needs to be communicated in the language of the people that live in their community. The problem, he told his congregation, was not that the truth was not being taught at Temple; it was the generations-old delivery method by which the truth was being communicated.
Powell’s premise was simple: “In order to reach people for Christ, we must speak the language of the culture we’re trying to reach. Most churches don’t. Most use language from many generations ago.” This was the main problem at Temple; and change needed to occur to reverse the decline.
Jesus, Our Example of Relevance
According to Powell, he was just following through on how he saw Jesus minister in the New Testament: “Jesus dealt with the same stuff we’re dealing with as we try to communicate truth in the language of the culture. He was literally called Satan. He was despised. He was hated. He was rejected. He was put on a cross and left to die. Why? Because He was taking God’s truth and delivering it to people through a different delivery system than the religious leaders who were bound by tradition. He was seeking to communicate God’s truth in the language of his culture… He was culturally relevant.”
“Jesus adopted every language, dress, and behavior in order to communicate truth. As our culture constantly changes, the way we communicate truth needs to change as well. The delivery system is not the value; it’s just the delivery system. We must constantly change the way we say our message; and at the same time, not change the truth contained in our message.”
Many Pastors Fear Change
But many pastors fear making changes at their church, especially changes that challenge the tradition and culture and language of their local church. Change is hard. Change is stressful. And many view any kind of transition in the church today as a type of compromise. Change can also cause people to leave the church (a big concern for most pastors). But according to Powell, these types of changes are absolutely necessary if a church is to move from a state of decline into a period of growth and health. And, when studying church change, you’ll find that people will leave with or without change. Brad sights three truths:
1. If your church doesn’t change, it will STILL lose people. It’s natural… people will leave even if you don’t change!
2. If your church doesn’t change, it loses the opportunity to reach new people. If you’re not able to speak the language of the culture, many of your target will fall completely off your radar.
3. If your church does change, it would lose the right people. Those members who are the ones steeped in tradition are the ones holding the future effectiveness of the church back.
Transition is for Megachurches, Too
Transitioning is not just a problem for the small church. Megachurches are also having major problems with transitioning. Most of today’s megachurches were started by speaking the language of the culture and found success; but are now growing stagnant because they have not transitioned through the years. It’s hard for all size churches to change, but the dynamic nature of culture demands that all churches constantly change. With the average age in today’s megachurch increasing, there is a need for even large churches to continually transition. If not, growth slows, and eventually decline begins when we stop speaking the language of the culture.
‘Hang in There’ Doesn’t Work
Discouragement is today’s number one poison for pastors. Most church leaders signed on to ministry because they thought they could make a change in the world. Discouragement sets in when they find themselves in a church that is opposed to change. While they thought they would be spending their time saving the lost in their community; they suddenly found themselves fighting with their church board over money; or how many hymns are sung in their services.
In a recent survey, over 50% of pastors said they would leave the ministry today if they could just find another source of income. The old advice of “Hang in there” doesn’t work for pastors anymore, because many times this attitude and ‘way of doing church’ does not change. Pastors get more and more discouraged, and either leave the church or leave the ministry.
But the message of the ‘change without compromise’ story from NorthRidge can help turn the pastor’s discouragement into hope. The NorthRidge story allows pastors to see how they can initiate change that will stop the decline of their church, and help turn it into a church that is constantly reaching out to people, speaking the language of their culture, and making a difference in their community. That kind of church can actually help change the world.
Powell says, “If it can happen at NorthRidge, it can happen anywhere.”
ChurchDare and Sacred Cow Tipping
Because of Brad’s passion for the local church, and his belief that change must be constant for growth and conversion to occur, NorthRidge is openly sharing their experiences on how to change without compromise by presenting a conference called “Church Dare: Change Without Compromise” and a new book by Brad Powell entitled “Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping.”
The conference and book are different from most being promoted today. Powell and NorthRidge take an experiential approach rather than an academic one. They do not push one model of ministry, and do not push you to become of NorthRidge knock-off. Based on the belief that all churches can learn from the biblical principles that were used to transition, both the book and the conference offer navigational tools; real life experience lessons that will work in any town and in any church size.
ChurchDare: Change Without Compromise Conference
February 8-10, 2007 at NorthRidge Church in Plymouth Michigan
Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping
By Brad Powell (published by Thomas Nelson)
Available at http://www.bradpowellonline.com
About the Author: Todd Rhoades is the Managing Editor and Publisher of MondayMorningInsight.com (MMI as most of us know it). Besides spending a good amount of time maintaining this website, Todd is on the staff of Leadership Network, helping large churches to better connect, innovate, and multiply what they do best. Todd was also the founder of ChurchStaffing.com, until he sold the site in 2005. Todd lives with his wife, Dawn, and four children in Bryan, OH. He can be reached at .
Two stats in the above article need your comments today:
1. Over 50% of pastors said they would leave the ministry today if they could just find another source of income. What do you think? Are you in the over 50%? Why or why not?
2. Over 90% of American churches are in a state of decline today. Is your church in the 90 or the 10?
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