The Sacred Art of Cow Tipping:  An Interview with Brad Powell

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/ story and how they were able to transition from a dying church locked in a pattern of cultural irrelevance, to an exciting, communicating God’s Word to over 12,000 people in their services every week.

Temple Baptist’s ‘Glory’ Days
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 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, , 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 .  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

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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 .

For Discussion: 
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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  There are 20 Comments:

  • Posted by

    On your quote that 50% of the pastors today would leve if they could just find another income. That tells volumes of the men who are pastoring today who do not look at ministry as a calling. They look at it as a job or a vocation. May be if more looked at ministry as a calling and re evaluated weither or not they were relly called or they just went into the ministry out of Bible school or seminary. It has to be a call from God on our lives to do the ministry of God.

    A professor in seminary once said, “If you can do any thing else, do it.” He was refering to the call to ministry. If you can comfortably do a job outside of ministry without looking back and asking, “what if...?” then do it. I believe we have to do ministry like that Spanish invader of Mexico hundreds of years ago. As they got off of their ships, he ordered that the ships be burnt so that they would not look back and keep going forward.

    If we keep looking back on what might have been instead of what could be would make all of the difference in in how we see and do ministry.

  • Posted by Phil DiLernia

    The reason why this statistic is sooo high is simple ... most people don’t like to BE LED and therefore make life unbearable for leaders.  Most of these 50% who would leave; my guess would be that they’ve not had the “opportunities” in many other areas of life. 

    I became a pastor about 6 months ago after 24 years in business.  I also have people who don’t like to be led and can cause great emotional stress.  However, I don’t have to look back and wonder “what if.” I’ve already lived them. 

    Most probably those that would leave if they “could” feel trapped ... what a shame (both their feeling of being trapped and that those they lead don’t realize or care how they are damaging their pastors.) I am so thankful that God has placed me where he has.

    As for the second question: my church had about 230-250 when I arrived 6 months ago.  It now has 350 so I would say that it’s growing.  We’re less than 10 miles from Brad’s church and who cannot appreciate what it is that God has done through Northridge?  I wish I could sit down with him and gain some encouragement as he tells me how tough it was when he led his church through these changes.  BTW, there will be 5 of us from our church at his conference.

    One note on this article - however.  I don’t think that major issue is “communicating the gospel” in culturally relevant ways.  It makes it sound like what we need is different preaching and while I’m OK with that thought I don’t think it’s the preaching that causes the older generations to block change.  I believe it’s in the more “outward appearance” areas such as music and dress that are our major stumbling blocks.

    I could start a church right across the street from Northridge and have 1,000 people in a year or two attending the church - but that would be too easy!!!  smile God has me where he wants me and that is to lovingly but steadfastly guide an older church through the murky waters of irrelevance and into the crystal blue waters of watching God do what He does best - grow His Kingdom!

  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    Thanks, Phil… hope I can meet you at the conference this year… I’ll be there as well.

    I think Brad would say that the ‘communicating the gospel’ is much more than just the preaching; and includes the things that you mention as well.  Those, for sure, have been a big part of the NorthRidge transition.


  • Posted by Ed Vasicek

    I had a few years (about 4 or 5) where I seriously considered leaving the ministry (two MAJOR conflicts, about a year apart); if a good opportunity would have come my way, I think I would have jumped at it.  But my wife felt otherwise; her conviction that I should weather the storms made a big difference - - it kept me from actively pursing an alternative.

    In time, the effects of the conflicts blew over and our church experienced its best years ever.  I have never been happier in the ministry.  Larry’s comments,

    That tells volumes of the men who are pastoring today who do not look at ministry as a calling. They look at it as a job or a vocation. 

    do not take into account the Jonah temptation.  I felt I had been called to the ministry, but also felt I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Fellow pastors help support me during this time.

    I am entering my 24th year here, so I think I have some crediblity when I affirm that one can be called by God to ministry and still throw in the towel.  I have also known many men who got out of the ministry to recover and then returned. 

    You can blame the pastor for everything, but remeber this: Christ is the head of the church.  The church is a mess.  Is Christ to blame?

  • Posted by Phil DiLernia

    Yes Todd let’s get together during that conference!  It would be awesome.  BTW, sorry for not sending the fourth article.  I will do so, if I still can, in a week or so when things calm down here.  Still in process of selling my home in NJ and the business as well!  Ugh ... all that besides raising two teens and pastoring a transitioning church!  LOL God has a sense of humor.  Anyway ... if the opportunity still stands ... I’ll do it.  You’ve got my email if you want to get together.  If so I’ll send you my cell #.

    BTW, the last writer - Ed - mentions a very good point.  A pastor’s wife can make all the difference in the world.  Me, I’ve been blessed with a wife among wifes!  A blessing beyond words and an incredible resource of listening, encouragement, and love that without those things I don’t believe I would have ever been able to see this dream of ministering come true!  I’m looking forward to my 25th Anniv this May!

    Praise God!

  • Posted by kent

    Having done this for 25 years, I would not leave or quit. it is a calling I enjoy. Our church is not growing by leaps or bounds but we are moving ahead about 4 - 5% a year which is good.

    I do believe we have to change. And churches do hcange but not in the essential areas. I do not know of any church that has rejected computers or microwaves, but plenty that think the only way to worship or reach others is the way we have done for 40 years. They are stuck on a loop they will not even consider leaving. Youth for Chrsit yused to have a slogan that i believe says it well. Anchored to the rock, geared to the times.

  • Posted by

    I agree with Ed about those who step out to get “refreshed”. I took a one year hiatus after going through 2-3 bad church situations.  I took that year to make sure I was in ministry for the right reasons, that it was a call from God. I couldn’t escape it. I knew in my spirit that this is what God had for me to do, He just “adjusted” my ministry and although it hasn’t been just gravy, it has been a great journey with the Lord.

    And question #2 our church is in the 90%. We are holding after a 10 year slow decline, but there are still those who look back to “glory days” and don’t understand why we need to rethink the way we do things.

  • Posted by Norm

    I have just completed my 13th month as pastor of a 100 year old church. The church had been in decline for years and had made a major move to a different area in town with the hopes of growing again. Shortly after the move the pastor resigned and the church was very discouraged. The first year we spent our time focusing on restoring the hope that Jesus brings to His church and making sure we were His church. We have grown in numbers but most importantly have grown in spiritual maturity. Sunday on a message on the “Men of Issachar” we told our church that this year we needed to bring about some major change in order to impact our community the way we should. A few of the patriarch/matriarch types are a little uneasy but have learned to trust our leadership over this last year so the transistion hopefully will be smoother. Thanks for the article.

  • Posted by

    Culture.  What Culture? 

    I just moved about 85 miles from one suburb of LA to another.  I knew there would be ministry changes relating to culture so months ago I started observing the different cultures.  What I found is that both areas don’t have one culture but many.  There are the haves and have nots… both having different language, experiences, priorities and prejudices.  There are modern and post modern both vastly different and near distain for the other.  There are 3 to 4 primary ethnic cultures… I’m a minority being American.  There are a multitude of religious cultures ranging from conservative Christianity to Dyanetics. 

    When someone says “culturally relevant” it seems to me they mean making a choice to be culturally relevant to one at the exclusion of the others.  Rick Warren says, in The Purpose Driven Church, that the others don’t matter… they’ll find their church elsewhere.  I think, while this is pragmatic so long as you choose the most dominate culture like Rick Warren did, it is not representative of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans, the Persians, those in Decapolis, the Roman soldiers, the farmers in Galilee, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, the peasants there too and the young and old.  Like Jesus, we live in fragmented culture but the Gospel found a way to all.  I always wonder if being “culturally relevant” is an excuse for not being relevant to the world as described in Acts 1:8.  I believe we are called to greater things… not simply the culture in which we are immersed. 



  • Posted by

    First, Jesus was not crucified because He was communicating differently.  That lowers Christ and ignores the fact that He was crucified because of His message.  I agree so much with Larry’s comment.  Most pastors I have observed are in it as an occupation and that is what seems to drive them to be so concerned with how the church grows or where it is located.  I agree with the article and Phil about why the people don’t like changes.  But Pastors and leaders should not be jumping on the bandwagon, buying into others assumptions/generalizations about the root causes of change, and then change for changes sake.  I can also see John’s point and that is one reason why I reject the relevancy/sensitivity arguements because the change will cause lowering of the message to the lowest common denominator in an effor to appease everyone or even one group.  Lastly, God’s desire is for the church, in the local body, to be culturally diverse.  This is the ultimate proof of His working.

    I have witnessed (and shortly a part of) the most cross-cultural ministry there probably is with worship that is mixed in a God honoring way and a message every Sunday that doesn’t worry about being relevant to the people.  BTW, they have have started 6 churches, have 4000+ members, 20+ years old, and have no church building!  They have also started some significant ministries (free adoption as one, most were formed by members and not leader driven) and have made public stands against moral decline (Mayday for Marriage).  Check out http://www.abchurch.org.  It can be done.  It is putting into practice ALL things we believe and being an obedient church (they practice biblical church discipline).  I think this last statement of our witness is the real root cause of why so many of the young have not come.  They have seen it not work in our families.  I think the unchurched have made relevancy an excuse and we have bought into it instead of leading the Body of Christ to purity.

  • Posted by

    Just an insert to a couple things I heard being said. Ministry is a call, true and if given the opportunity to leave some would.
    Both statements have truth and some cultural “tainting”. I think we need to remember that full-time ministry is what we are ALL called to, whether we’re pumping gas or a store clerk. We are ambassadors whether being paid by an employer or the employer is the church.
    Now, we also have to remember that Paul and the rest of the apostles all had other income to fund their ministry. Paul a tent maker took his income from that so he could preach freely.
    How many of you in ministry make decisions based upon whether or not it is politically correct with your board or congregation? I know too many that do because their job is in jeopardy if they don’t follow suit.
    If I could make my living at something else and give full-time to ministry I’d jump at it. For two reasons: 1). Then I’m never owned and operated by the politics of the church. 2). It wouldn’t drain the finances of the church to pay my salary. That $ could be invested a hundred different ways: feed the poor, help widows and orphans.
    I’ve been in ministry 25 years full-time. I love ministry, I love serving the Lord and His church, but I HATE with a passion the carnal politics of favoritism, triangulation and posing.
    I’m overjoyed for the man who is in the ministry after years of being in the worlds business. But I warn you, the security of ministry has a price tag with it. Go against the doctrine, or wishes of the board or a consistory and you’re in for a fight, and that may not be so pretty as you think.
    One last entry: Christ was a free-lance Diety. Not one owned Him, maniputaled Him, bossed Him around or pursuaded Him against His true call. Paul said owe no man anything but “Love”. Jesus and Paul never owed the church politics their loyalty or their devotion. They owed them the truth and sometimes it hurt, and it angered some of the church officials to criticism.
    It’s a tight rope we walk and for those who like the games and fun of being a politician, churchianity is right up their alley. But if you want a church alive, healthy, vibrant and cutting edge it will cost you. But the results are worth the effort to get there.
    I think I would err on the side of making my living doing something else and giving my time to the ministry. Then I know my motives are pure.  At times I’m mixed and I hate have a double minded motive.
    Thanks for your many challenging and deep contributions to this topic. I appreciate everyone of you and your perspective. We all come to some conclusion and then live that out. The important thing is that we live out serving Our Lord with a full, rich and loving heart.
    Blessings, JIM

  • Posted by

    Dear Friends
    Decline to crash - I was a member of a church which was started over 75 years ago.  There was growth in those early years but in the last dying breath only 8 people attended Sunday Am and three on Wednesday PM.  The pastor essentially gave up the ghost and would not let anyother individual take over the church, eventhough there was great potential in the few left. The doors. closed (the building will be torn down) and the sheep found new pasture (praise God, all still attend different churches - including different denominations).  I believe individuals, as one noted before, see the pastorship is being looked upon as a job not as a calling.  I think we have in our minds a church which will become a mega church in just a few days and there will be “riches beyond measure” with talented musicians and workers and outreaches enable to change the world in which we live.......but as we all know, just as our individual walk is, it is a process and it all depends on out comittment to God and His Will!  What I see as a sad point with this comment, in these days where people are “SO” desperate for spiritual fulfillment, the church which presents the only Hope for eternal communion with our Lord and Savior is being replaced by the micro-wave religion and where anything goes.  We see a growth of Islam (because they give ‘order’) or we see the growth int the Universal Unitarianism - all is self and self is all - (any belief is ok).  Why is America dying and other parts of the world exploding?  Is our version of Christianity just that “our version’ and not God’s?
    Appreciate oll of you and my prayers for all as we prusue HIM
    In His Service Bill
    PS my ministry (six years) is volunteer and I have a secular job - my ministry is an outreach (local cable TV nursing homes and i attend one of those 90% growing churches - healthly in all respects as well)

  • Posted by

    Interesting article.  Not sure I agree with all the statistics.  I’d like to read the studies that Powell refers to.  God is in the business of blessing His church.  There is the human part - our unselish service - and the divine part which sometimes is a mystery.  We have one church that is growing quiet well in the local association.  I asked a member what the secret was...location.  The person stated that they do not do anything different from other churches.  They have a traditional worship service, the pastor is a faithfu man but not the greatest public speaker, they struggle with volunteers for the nursery and children’s ministry, and the youth program is “so-so”.  They have an outreach program where 20 percent of those signed up actually visit.  And God blesses the church with growth.

    If the 50 percent of the pastors who want to leave would leave, maybe their churches might grow.  Pastoring is a calling.  Period.  We are called to serve.  Last Sunday I came home from worship and for the first time my wife said, “I can’t find anything to criticize about the worship. All went well.” I went to find the thermometer to take her temperature as she obviously had a fever [ha, ha].  It has taken us 12 years to achieve these results.  We have had to do a lot of changing over the past 12 years.  Discipleship requires change.  And it is a process. 

    One thing that should be considered is length of ministry.  When pastorates only average 4 years, how can one expect any change to take place?  If it took 20 years to the church to get where its at...it’s going to take a pastor committed to a long term pastorate to turn things around.  The longer he stays, the easier it will be for him and the church to tip over the sacred cows.is

  • Posted by

    I appreciate pastors who have done some real work and in the secular world (which is what I do).  I’ve noticed that many pastors, whether they know it or not, say things that seem to say being involved in ministry/missions is greater than working.  Well, our ministry is at our jobs and the Lord is pleased with our working and providing for our families.  I think I know what they mean is that some people put their jobs as their God.  I think what feeds the attitude is that ministry=obedience to God.  No ministry is an opportunity on equal footing with a secular job in the chance to serve God where we are.  Relationship with God (obedience and overcoming sin in our lives) and the leading of our families are even higher priorities than serving in ministry.

  • Posted by

    Hooray for Pastors.  Thank them for their service.  Pay them their due.  Support their leadership and their role in Da-Body.  Could it be some pastors are called or even ordained to close the doors of churches that have lived on long beyond their season?  How would you like that ministry mantle… “the pastor that kills churches that exist solely on life support.  If this is a viable role then don’t speak against God anointed - not matter how their ministry might differ from yours.

  • Posted by

    No offense to the comment of how you could start a bigger/better Church than Northridge acros the street. (below). But I doubt it, I attend NorthRidge and there was recentley a new addition built and more people attending monthly. Mostly everyone in Southeast MI (where the church is located) has heard of NorthRidge or been to a service.

  • Posted by Phil DiLernia


    My apologies for a bad joke.  I in no way meant I could do anything better or bigger than Northridge - in fact I also said in the same post who couldn’t appreciate what it is that God has done through them. 

    I applaud them for reaching out to their community in a most relevant effective manner.  We should only do it 100th as well.  I respect totally what it is that Brad Powell and the rest of the leadership has done there.

    My attempt at humor was misplaced and I apologize.


  • Posted by Phil DiLernia

    Ooops ... and as I said I’m bringing 5 of us to Northridge’s leadership conference and only hope that God will bless us mightily throgh what it is we hear and learn there.

  • Posted by

    This is a great article but what I do not understand is how you can say good stuff about Northridge Church{ which is a great church} then turn around in an other article and blast Detroit World Outreach{ Michigans Second Fastest Growing Church} for buying their pastor a 3.6 million dollar house. Both these churches are reaching thousands for Christ and are seeing many lives changed so how can you write good stuff about one church and something slandering another. Brad Powell and Northridge are doing a great work for God and thank the Lord for the turn-around at their church, Ben Gibert and Detroit World Outreach are also doing a great work for God and both churches should be shown in a positive light.
    Marty Banks

  • Your blog is really nice! Nearly all of the blog posts are written with full concentration and withiout going off-topic. I appreciate your time and efforts spent on this blog. The language sounds interactive, which is essential for blogging.

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