Leadership and Change
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Leadership and Change

Nehemiah 1:1–2:8  (ID: 2226)

In this message, Alistair Begg looks to the life of Nehemiah to teach us key characteristics of leadership, with an emphasis on how leaders should deal with change. God’s people should welcome changes that benefit Christ’s kingdom, even as they cultivate a healthy sense of discontent for the status quo. A purposeful leader must be prepared to move forward, anticipating that everyone deals with change differently.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 3

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23003

Sermon Transcript: Print

I thought that what I would do in this session—and I’m open to change, of course, but—is address the question of essentially leadership and change, and, you know, making changes. Because many of the questions are about “How do you get from here to here without losing your job, or your life, or your wife, or something? And what should we be doing?” So I thought I would do that, and then perhaps in the morning—and I’m not certain on this—but perhaps in the morning, we’ll do a session on this whole worship question and “the worship wars.” Everywhere you go, somebody asks you about music and style of music, and “What are we supposed to do?” I thought that I would maybe step in there, where angels fear to tread, and do something on that.

But if, you know, somebody asks me another questions afterwards and said, “Would you address this? Someone said something else; would you address that?”—if there is something that is a sort of cumulative point of interest, then, you know, if you can convey that to me, then at least I’ve got time before tomorrow to think about it. For example, if you want a session on why I do not pray the prayer of Jabez,[1] you can ask for that, and I’ll gladly come up with a session on that for you.

Nehemiah chapter 1.

(Incidentally, the basic answer, for those of you who are about to come up and say “Why not?” is “Because Jesus didn’t.” And when they said, “Teach us how to pray,” he said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name,’”[2] not, “Oh yeah, if you want to know how to pray, pray the prayer of Jabez.”)

“The words of Nehemiah [the] son of Hacaliah:

“In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.

“They said to me, ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’

“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:

“‘O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We[’ve] acted very wickedly toward[s] you. We[’ve] not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

“‘Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.”

“‘They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.’

“I was cupbearer to the king.”

It’s a lovely phrase, that, isn’t it? “The prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.” A wonderful picture.

Father, we pray that we might be those kinds of servants: that we may genuinely delight in revering your name. We know that the law of the Lord is perfect, that it converts the soul. That the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The commandments of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The statutes of the Lord are pure and righteous altogether.[3] Make us, we pray, men of your book. From the core of our being we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

What Good Leaders Do

Well, what I’d like to do is take a moment or two and just suggest a number of things to you concerning the nature of leadership and principles that are seen in the life of this character, Nehemiah. And I don’t want to do an exposition here; I just want to make some points as I’m passing through, and then move to some notes that I’ve had for some time about the whole question of being able to tackle opposition to change and to deal with the question as I mentioned it to you a moment or two ago.

Without leadership, nothing gets done properly. I mean, that’s just an obvious statement. We recognize that whether it’s in the home, or in an office, in a business situation, in a sports team, whatever it might be, leadership is absolutely essential. Sangster, the Methodist, at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century—the man who said, “Preaching is in the shadows. The world does not believe in it”[4]—also, writing on the subject of leadership, said, “The church is painfully in need of leaders. I wait to hear a voice and no voice comes.”[5] And if you think about the whole framework of contemporary evangelicalism in America, one of the great questions now is, Who are the leaders, who are the influencers, and who in the next decade will, under God, be able to exercise the kind of necessary leadership if the community of God’s people is not to slide off into some strange By-path Meadows?[6]

When the leader is simply a supervisor, then his responsibility is to direct and oversee, but when the leader is an influencer, then the influence that he or she brings is directly as a result of their character and their excellence and their vision and so on. And Nehemiah was clearly an influencer of people.

The extent to which our leadership is going to be effective is directly related to the posture of our hearts.

And I want to give you just one or two insights into that. There’s nothing surprising in it at all, but first of all, I want you to notice that good leaders see what other people miss. Good leaders see what other people miss. If you look at verse 3, as we read it: “Those who survived the exile,” the people said, “they’re back in the province, they’re in great trouble and disgrace. And the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” If you go forward to 2:17, when Nehemiah, in responding to this cry for help, has gone up to Jerusalem, he says in verse 17, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire.” They saw that the gates had been burned with fire and that the walls had fallen down, but they didn’t see the trouble they were in. Because all that they saw was the physicality of the situation, but Nehemiah realized that the real predicament confronting the people was that God’s glory was being dragged in the dust of a Judean hillside. And it was his spiritual insight and his sensitivity that allowed him to look at the physical circumstances and see, “This isn’t really the issue here.” Good leaders see what other people miss.

Good leaders know their place. Good leaders know their place. If you look at verse 5 and following: “Then I said: ‘O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love…’” His humility is expressed in his praying. We thought this morning about the place of praying in terms of preaching, but the place of praying is everywhere in our Christian pilgrimage. And the extent to which our leadership is going to be effective is directly related to the posture of our hearts. And Nehemiah was a humble man. He recognized that he and the others should be those who revere the name of God, and if there was going to be any success at all, then it was going to be granted to him by God—as opposed to the people who come to town, write books on leadership that are very man centered rather than God centered. And the good leader recognizes that unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it.[7] And nobody would be more surprised than the leader himself at the way in which God chose to intervene to show himself strong.

Thirdly, good leaders overcome the fear that paralyzes others. Good leaders overcome the fear that paralyzes others. I love the honesty of Nehemiah when he’s been exercised concerning the circumstances as they’ve been conveyed to him, he’s been praying very much about it, he’s continuing to fulfill his responsibilities as cupbearer to the king, he takes the wine in to the king, he gives it to him, he says in 2:1, “I had[n’t] been sad in his presence before; [and] so the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look so sad when you[’re] not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.’” Now, of course, we understand the context. The kings didn’t like their cupbearers to look sad. They liked them to look very happy and very “on the job,” because any kind of quiver in the liver of the cupbearer was maybe an indication of the fact that he had introduced a Mickey Finn to his drink and that there was a possibility that, you know, a couple of glugs and the king was gone. And so it didn’t pay you to create that kind of trouble on the waters. And the king recognizes that this isn’t Nehemiah’s standard approach, and so he says, “Why’s your face look so sad? This is sadness of heart; I can tell this is nothing else.” And then, you’ll notice, he says, “I was very much afraid.” “I was very much afraid, but I said to the king…”

He didn’t allow his fear to paralyze him. He didn’t say that he wasn’t afraid. He was afraid. Because bravery is not the absence of fear. Bravery is what we do with fear. So, for example, you say to a rock climber who’s up there without any ropes at all on the sheer face of the rock face, you say to him, “Weren’t you afraid up there?” He says, “Yeah, I was scared to death.” Maybe he said, “No, it didn’t cost me a thought. I can go up there any time at all.” That wouldn’t necessarily be an expression of bravery; that may be an expression of complete stupidity. He said, “Yeah, I was very afraid. But I overcome the sense of fear by making sure that I put my feet in the right places and I put my hands in the right holes.” And anyone who exercises leadership is gonna say that there are decisions that have to be made, there are responses that are going to come, there are plans that need to be executed, and quite honestly, it will bring with it a discovery of fearfulness. But the leader is not paralyzed by that fear as others may be.

Fourthly, good leaders take the initiative. Good leaders take the initiative. They’re initiative takers. “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’”—verse 4—when he’s explained to him the predicament of the circumstances in Jerusalem. “What is it you want?” he said. Now, notice: “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.” You see, prayer and initiative, hand in hand. He didn’t say, “Well, I don’t really know what I want, but I’m going to go away and pray about it for a number of days, and I’ll come back and see you later.” No. He was ready with his answer, but he prayed to God of heaven—must have just said quietly, “Lord, here we go. Help me with this. You know what we’ve been talking about in the silent place. I can’t believe that the fellow has asked me this question, but now that he’s asked it, let’s see what we can do.” “And then I answered the king, ‘Well, if I’ve found favor, could I go up to the city and rebuild it?’”[8] And the king, with the queen sitting beside, said, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?”[9] Which is always a very good question that you want to hear if you’re asking, for example, for a sabbatical, you know. If you ask for a sabbatical and they say, “Yeah, well, how about a sabbatical for the rest of your life?” you know that maybe you’re not just held in the kind of favor that you thought you were. But when you ask for a sabbatical and the first question is “When are you coming back?” then you know that this is an indication of the affection in which leadership is held. And it was true for him. “And it pleased the king to send me,” he said. “And so I established a time frame.”[10]

But notice his initiative, verse 7: “I also said to him, ‘Just while I have your ear, O King, if it pleases you, I’d like to have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe conduct until I arrive in Judah.’”[11] This guy’s thinking ahead. This is not your average minister, you know, who sort of bangs his head on the door and tries to waken up to the opportunities of tomorrow. No, he’d been thinking strategically. He’s been praying regularly. He knows, he’s got a plan of action. If the door of opportunity opens here, he’s ready to go. That’s leadership.

And he follows it up in verse 8: “And incidentally, could I have a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest?” “Why?” “Well, so he can give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy.”[12] He’s already planning building his house. He’s already got himself stationary in Jerusalem; he’s got a house, and he’s got all this stuff going. And verse 9, a little bonus: “So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters,” and “the king had also sent army officers and calvary with me.”

What a transformation in such a short period of time! Nehemiah: “Jerusalem’s a disaster. Boo-hoo, boo-hoo, boo-hoo.” Nehemiah, praying day after day, week after week. Apparently, nothing happening. Just a disaster in Jerusalem and just a praying individual in Susa. But not praying like a clueless person. Praying like a strategic-thinking person. Praying and pondering and saying, you know, “God, if you would open a door of opportunity here, how would we go through? What would we do? What would our plan be? How would it unfold?” See, some of us, you think that, you know, if you pray, you don’t do any of this stuff, and if you do any of that stuff, you don’t pray. But we can do more than pray after we’ve prayed; we can’t do more than pray until we’ve prayed. So Nehemiah is doing this praying, but he’s ready to go. Because good leaders take the initiative.

Good leaders also get enough rest. Good leaders get enough rest. Verse 11 of chapter 2: “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days…” Three days. Probably included the Sabbath; he wouldn’t have broken it. But this isn’t the average American businessman getting off a transatlantic flight and going immediately to his first meeting, followed by his second meeting, followed by his third meeting, and so on, and there’s an exponential decline in his capacity as he goes through the day. Doesn’t matter to him or anybody else; he just talks a little louder as the day goes on, blusters a little more.

It’s a very hard thing for some of us to face up to the fact that we do need to take some rest, you know. We think that the strength of our leadership is the fact that we’re like the Energizer Bunny, that we can go on and on and on and on and on. But something will come to stop us, or someone will come to stop us. And we will find that other people know before we know that we’re past our efficiency quotient—that we have actually become tired to the point of danger, in the same way as your wife knows when you’re driving in the car, and you’re down somewhere in the Carolinas, and she just catches you [imitates dozing off], and you just catch yourself; you just did a couple of those. And she has been watching you for some time, and she knows that you’re about to introduce the whole family to complete and total disaster. Why? Because you’re too proud to admit that you cannot drive any further and you’re about to fall asleep at the wheel: “No, no, we’ll be there. We’ll be there.” Yeah, we’ll be there, but the “there” looks like it’s gonna be heaven rather than Raleigh-Durham, or whatever it is, you know.

When we get tired, incidentally—and we do get tired. I hope we get tired. I hope we’re not lazy. When we do get tired, we need to be careful that, in that sense of fatigue which will inevitably come, that we don’t write important letters, we don’t make important decisions, we don’t assess the spiritual well-being of others, and we don’t assess the spiritual well-being of ourselves. Because our perspective will be jaundiced, inevitably. And the times when I feel most like making a running jump for it, when I look back on it, I can see that the batteries had just gone down. They’d just gone down. I wasn’t really thinking properly about things anymore. And your judgment is worse than it usually is. So, it’s just a reminder in passing. It’s not a great point, is it? But good leaders ought to be getting enough rest.

Also, good leaders do their homework. Good leaders do their homework. They don’t lead by thinking on their feet, but they lead as a result of praying on their knees and then making plans accordingly. And you can see how this works out in Nehemiah’s situation, in 2:12: “I set out during the night with a few men. I had[n’t] told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.” So he’s working quietly; he’s working, actually, secretly; and he’s working methodically. Very unlike some of our temptations, which is to have a big banner under which we would walk into whatever our Jerusalem project is. We’d have the people go ahead of us so that they could prepare the way, so that when everyone was ready, they’d be able to announce, “Nehemiah’s coming to town!” And in he would come in a great flurry of power and influence. No, he comes in, and people really don’t know he’s there. He does his work in the silence of the night. He doesn’t make a big fuss and bother about it. But he’s doing his homework.

And then once he’s done his homework, he does what good leaders do, and that is, he shares his vision. Back to 2:17: “‘Come [on], let[’s] rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ [And] I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.” It’s a great encouragement to them. They said, “What do you mean, Nehemiah? People were up here before you, you know. There has been a project like this in the past. We’ve tried one of these things, you know. This thing got halfway up, and then it was stopped again.” Haven’t you heard that before? When you try and to share your vision? “Well, one of the previous ministers, he tried this, you know. And we got kind of halfway, and then it went into oblivion.”

“Why do you think, Nehemiah, that now, at this particular moment in history, that it is time for us to rally behind you and get to grips with the challenge of the circumstances?” “Well, let me just answer that in two ways,” says Nehemiah. “Number one, I believe the hand of God is on my life, and number two, as an evidence of that, let me tell you what the king said to me.” And the people said, “That makes a lot of sense.”

Good leaders do their homework. They don’t lead by thinking on their feet, but they lead as a result of praying on their knees and then making plans accordingly.

Good leaders share the vision; good leaders delegate the tasks. “I said, ‘Let’s get on with building the wall.’” And “they replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.”[13] Once it’s time to go—once you got the gun out of the holster, you’re ready to fire—then you discover whether the leader has any concept of what he’s doing at all. And if you go to chapter 3 and you realize the strategic way in which he puts the people in place, each of them working in front of their own property, it’s a masterful economic way to achieve his objective. But good leaders delegate the tasks. Poor leaders try and do everything themselves.

Good leaders will always encounter opposition—2:19. It’s not 2:19; there’s nothing there about opposition at all, is there? Oh yes, there is; I was looking at 3:19. Yeah. “Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite … and Geshem the Arab”—the unholy trinity—“heard about it,” and “they mocked and ridiculed us,” and they said, “What is this you[’re] doing? … Are you rebelling against the king?” There’s no way that you can exercise any kind of constructive leadership without somebody coming, beating on the project and trying to pull it apart. And if you’re afraid of that, you’ll never do anything at all.

You see that through the whole of the Bible. There’s Moses: “Guys, let’s get outta here. We’re going on our way to the promised land.” “Hey, great idea. Glad to get us out of there!” They’re not out of there five minutes, and then they’re saying, “We loved Egypt. Egypt was a great place. Great restaurants, fantastic! I mean, we had a little problem with the bricks, but it wasn’t much of a problem, looking back on it now. But it’s certainly to be preferred from this lousy journey out here and this same food every single day! Moses, what are you doing with us?” Moses says, “God, what am I supposed to do with these people?”[14] I don’t know about you, but that’s how I feel many a day: “What am I supposed to do with these people?”

And good leaders, finally, know their source of strength. They face opposition, but they know their source of strength. “Are you rebelling against the king?” they say in verse 19, and “I answered them by saying, ‘The God of heaven will give us success.’” He doesn’t answer ’em by saying, “You don’t understand who you’re talking to. You need to understand that you’re not talking to one of these Mickey Mouse people that was up here before, you know, with the previous project—that went to nothing. No, no, no. You’re talking to Nehemiah, cupbearer to the king, big job in Susa, the capital of Persia. You know, I’m your main man.” No. “What do you think you’re doing? The God of heaven will take care of this.” See, “God’s work, done … God’s way, will never lack God’s suppl[y],” according to Hudson Taylor.[15] I think he was right, wasn’t he?

Opposition to Change

Now, with that as a kind of biblical framework, I want just to share with you one or two practical pointers that I have picked up along the journey of life concerning opposition to change. Incidentally, I’m not suggesting in sharing this with you that I have fully understood this, mastered it, or am even successful at implementing it. But these are observations that I have been able to make, and many times as a result of my own ineptitude in seeking to take on the challenge.

Change is difficult for everybody, and that’s why there is so much opposition to it. The United Kingdom, in church life, has got things as buttoned down as you could ever find. I mean, the problem over here is that there are no furrows. The problem over there is that the furrows have all become ruts, and in certain cases, they have become graves—because a grave is essentially just a furrow that’s had the two ends closed in on it, and then you just die in there. And many a church in the UK is operating under the banner heading of “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” And any attempt to make any kind of change at all will be covered by a gigantic wet blanket supplied by the church leadership, who believe that their responsibility in life is to squash any kind of initiative at all and to keep things in the pristine, dreadful condition that they’ve always seen them.

The real challenge in being a change agent is in learning how to mobilize and move the people that are within our care.

When I went to Charlotte Chapel, the communion services were served by the elders, wearing black jackets and pin-striped trousers. You say, “Well, what’s the big deal about that?” Nothing. It’s just an indication of the fact that that was 1975, and I don’t how many of you in churches over here were presiding at communion services with guys wearing long black jackets and pin-striped trousers and certain kinds of collars and ties. It’s a little different over there.

And the classic story of a guy who was over there in Wales, and he was a visiting preacher, and the entryway into the pulpit came through two separate doors. You could come in from one side; you could come in from the other. They had been praying together with the minister and the deacons before they went in, into the pulpit. And the minister went forward and put his hand on the door in order to go into the pulpit area, and the senior deacon said, “Oh, Pastor, where are you going?”

He said, “Well, I’m going into the pulpit. I’m going to go in first, and then our brother here is the visitor. Are you coming alongside me?”

“Oh no,” said the senior deacon, “you can’t go through that door. That’s the morning door.”

Well, the pastor said, “Well, I know it’s the door we routinely go in in the morning, but just because of the way the chairs are laid out, I just thought it would be good to go in here in the evening.”

The deacon said, “Well, I really advise against it.” I mean, this is a true story. They’re having a dialogue here, like, sixty seconds before the service starts. “Well, I really don’t think so, because, I mean, we go in through the morning door, we go in through the evening door.”

So the minister, in a moment of great bravado, says, “Well, whatever door, we’re going in this door.” And he goes in the door, and the American visitor, as he passed the senior deacon—the senior deacon was standing here as this little procession went by him, and the American man heard him saying, “Most peculiar. Most peculiar.”

I mean, this is the level of exactitude, you know, that attends so many structures and strictures within a local church—and it’s death. Because where there’s life, there’s change. You want no change? Live in a cemetery. Except for decay!

Now, here at Parkside, we have done everything that you’re not supposed to do. First of all, you come, you’re in a building. You sell the building. You get out of there. You move. Percentage of your congregation leaves you because you moved. You go in a high school. You move again. Another group moves and leaves. You change the name of the church; you’re not allowed to do that, and another group hive off. You change the constitution, and you’re not allowed to do that, and another group take their baseball bat and go home. Surely only a silly person would be engaged in all of this kind of movement and change! Well, if it was just trivial—if it was just in order to move the furniture around in the house for effect—then there would be a legitimate response on the part of those who said, “You know, we don’t have to keep doing this.” But if under God it is purposeful—if it is to set forward the opportunities of evangelism and the development of God’s people—then it has to happen. And the real challenge in being a change agent is in learning how to mobilize and move the people that are within our care. Because they break down into a variety of individuals—and, you know, people make percentages on these things. I’m not sure how accurate they are, but certainly, it’s represented in the different groups.

How People Respond to Change

When you introduce a proposal for change as a leader, there are some people who are immediately on it with you. These people are themselves innovators. They’re just innovative kind of people. They’re regularly talking about the church and talking about its future. They’re interested in that.

When you’re in their company, they’re saying, “You know, did you ever consider the possibility of going over to the car park of Six Flags and just actually doing tract distribution when the people are leaving?”

“I never thought of that.”

“Well, you ought to think of that! I mean, have you ever thought seriously about taking that little plane that trails up there over the Indians when you’re out there on the evening watching the game, and there’s forty thousand people there, and it says, you know, ‘Come to the Crazy Horse at 9:00’—did you ever think of just putting a thing up there that says, ‘Parkside Church this Sunday: What about it?’”

“No, I never thought of that.”

They’re these kind of people. Now, they’re very unsettling to the other kinds of people, but I love ’em! I love being with them. I say, “Tell me more of these things. Give me more of these ideas.” I can’t get enough of them. But it’s a very small number—maybe two in a hundred. Two in a hundred.

Then, when the word gets out that there is some change afoot, there’s probably 10 percent of the congregation that is prepared to get on board quickly. These are the kind of people that know a good idea when they see it. In business, they’re good at it as well. They’ve been able to adjudicate on a good one and a bad one. They’re good at making decisions; they said, “This stinks; I’m leaving it alone. This is a good one; I’m taking it.” They’re not a hundred-percent correct, but they’re the kind of people who are very quickly on board. So you got your 2 percent that are already halfway down the road in front of you; you got another 10 percent that are now come and said, “This is fantastic; we’re on the move.”

Now, at that point, it starts to get less than encouraging. Because now you come to the great glut of people—probably 60 percent of your congregation—who are fence-sitters… provided the fence is broad enough to handle their posterior. But they sit on the fence. These are the kind of people who respond to the opinions of others. These are the kind of people who are committed, by and large, to the status quo. It doesn’t matter with the status quo is. They’re just committed to the status quo.

And this is where you have a problem in your congregation if you have congregational church government, and you have, you know, Mrs. Henderson, who always, without exception, will stand up at your monthly meeting and start rabbiting on about the same silly thing that she’d been on about for the last fourteen months. And the problem is that she is the sister-in-law of the deacon whose husband’s mother’s cousin’s friend is, you know, related to the Archbishop of Canterbury, or whatever it is. And so you cannot… there’s nothing you can do with Mrs. Henderson except hold on to the bottom of your seat and wait for her to stop. Because what she does is, just when you think, “We’re ready to go,” she stands up and puts the cat among the pigeons, and the whole thing is completely neutralized. Now we got a battle. “Oh, here we go. The pastor versus Mrs. Henderson! We love it when this happens!” What are you supposed to do? The 2 percent of the innovators are about to go grab her and turn her into a funeral pyre, and the 60 percent of the people are all sitting, going, “Mrs. Henderson has a very good point. A very good point indeed!” And so you know, “We’re busted! Take this idea and put it with Mrs. Lloyd-Jones’s rock cakes, as far as I’m concerned. This thing is going nowhere.”

You know the church that got together—and this is classic, of course—the church got together and passed a fourfold resolution: “Number one, we will build a new church. Number two, we will build the new church on the site of the old church. Number three, we will use the materials in the old church in the construction of the new church. Number four, we will continue to use the old church until the new church is completed.” And I believe that was proposed by Mrs. Henderson and passed with an overwhelming majority.

Now, you got 20 percent of your group, by and large: these are the last group to endorse the idea. They’ll get there, but they always see the problems, they always see the pitfalls. They’re good people to have around. They’re good! Because they save you from some silly stuff. But you have to learn how to handle ’em. You say, “Oh, here comes old Brother Bill again, you know. He’ll be explaining why there’s a real danger, you know, with the drainage system, you know.” And so you have to say, “Yeah, I understand, that’s important,” and everything. Actually, I’m no good at that; I ask somebody else to do it. I go in my study and just bang my head off the wall, and phone up some of my innovating friends and moan. But we do have people that are able to deal with Brother Bill, and “Ah, yeah, yeah,” and listen and so on, and then eventually the news comes: “Hey, Brother Bill’s on as well! You know, we brought in the last 20 percent.”

Actually, there’s 8 percent of donkeys and mules that are just lagging so far behind. They’ve never adopted a new idea in their lives. I mean, look at their hairdo for a start, you know. I mean, it’s like they’re in a time warp. They’re in the twilight zone, this group. Just pray for ’em and love ’em and just don’t worry about them. They’re there. Okay?

Now, why is all of this? Because change sets up tension. When the plane breaks through the sound barrier, phenomenal pressure and tension on the fuselage of the plane. They have to build a plane in such a way so as to be able to go through that, because if the structures are not built in the right way, then it cannot go through there without major disaster. Incidentally, that’s one of the very important things, is it not, about making sure that we’ve done the right preparatory work? Because we know now: we’re going through this barrier. Come whatever, we’re going through. And we know now, so we’re not unsettled by the fact that tension is set up, there’s stress on the structure, there’s stress on the wings. We know that. It will unsettle people. We know that. They’re gonna have to trust the pilots at that point, because we have done the preparatory work, and we’re going through.

Failure at that moment consistently in a church’s life, in my humble experience, will eventually lead to a church that goes into decay and to degeneration. Because you cannot take your people up, as it were, to the threshold, and then, as a result of whatever reason, have it all back off again, and then go back through and get them all cranked up and take them back up again, and then somebody interferes again, and we gotta back it off again. Eventually, the people who are concerned—and we’re talking now about biblical things, about God-honoring things; we’re not talking about silly stuff—the people who really believe that it is of fundamental importance for the good of the kingdom to reach out and on in this way, they eventually won’t be able to stand it. And they’ll go off in search of a place where the plane is actually gonna break through the barrier and the change is gonna have to be effected.

Why People Resist Change

Now, why is it, then, that people—ourselves included—find change so difficult? Well, usually, the first reason is because they didn’t initiate it, and so they don’t own it. “If it’s not my idea, it’s a lousy idea.” And I see that in myself. “Well, I thought we should do this.” “Oh, I didn’t think we should. Therefore, we shouldn’t.” It’s not a good program. My wife has tons of good ideas—far more good ideas than ever I have. But if I’m proud and arrogant and believe that the only decent ideas are gonna come from me or the only ideas that we’re gonna implement are gonna be mine, then I’m gonna miss the opportunity of benefiting from her initiative and from her creativity. [Conference attendee: “China plates!”] Pardon? [“China plates.”] China plates. [“Paper plates.”] Paper plates. Absolutely, good. See, I’m not used to people actually connecting the previous day to today. I didn’t know if that was an insult or a compliment or what it was, there. I was trying…

The second reason they resist it is not only because they didn’t initiate it or own it but because it’s a disruption to their established routine.

“This is gonna mess me up. I mean, we start these two services, I’m gonna have to decide which one to go to! I don’t want to have to decide which one to go to. I want one to go to.”

“Well, don’t you realize that we can reach three thousand people instead of fifteen hundred people?”

“I don’t care about that. I just want one to go to. We’ve always had one, we’re keeping one. God bless you and have a great day.” Fine.

I love disrupting people’s routine. I love it! Part of the reason for my existence is disrupting people’s routine.

Now, that’s why you can’t have too many people like me around in the one place, but you need one or two of us, and you need the other people going, “Hang on a minute, now, hang on, hang on.” You got Luther, you got Melanchthon. Luther’s going, “You snotty bunch of rascals!” Melanchthon going, “You might not want to say it like that. Maybe we could say… Now, come on, Martin. Let’s just try it again. I’m gonna give you it another way. You say, ‘Oh, you wonderful group of people, let me encourage you forward.’” Luther’s going, “That’s a pile! Listen, you snotty bunch of rascals! Let’s get here!” you know.

Say you go to Florence and look at that fantastic picture that you find in books every so often. I saw the original of it last year. It was the best thing I saw in the whole Uffizi Gallery, or wherever the world I was. Had to stand outside for three hours with my wife to go in that place, just as a submissive husband. But it was worth it when I got in there and I saw that picture of Luther and Melanchthon. I just stood before it, and I said, “This is awesome.” ’Cause you got all that bravado of Luther—all of that stuff, you know. And Melanchthon’s standing on his side, going, “Hey, Martin, Martin, Martin. Hang on!” Both absolutely crucial.

See, we’re all better with one another than any of us are on our own. We’re dangerous on our own. That’s why every minister needs a wife, if for no other reason than to keep him humble. ’Cause we’re dangerous on our own. How did I get there? I haven’t a clue.

Why do people resist change? They didn’t initiate it. It’s a disruption to their routine. Thirdly, because of the fear of the unknown: “Well, what’ll it be like? I mean, what’ll happen if this, and what’ll happen if that?” That’s understandable. We have to say, “Hey…” You know, if you’re gonna allow fear of the unknown to paralyze you, you’ll never be able to go under general anesthetic. Somebody’s gonna have to sit with you and say, “You know, you’ll be okay. You come out the other side, believe me.” Fear of the unknown.

Fourthly, risk of failure. We don’t want to fail; therefore, we’re not going to try. Remember that great line in Chariots of Fire, with Abrahams? When in the fictitious race with Liddell… They never raced against one another; they just set that up in the movie, to make it more exciting. But when he races Liddell, Liddell falls, Liddell gets up, he does that great thing, once the music kicks in; once Vangelis starts playing, the power comes, “Mmmm,” and Abrahams ends up being beaten by Liddell. The scene cuts. It’s now the stadium. It’s actually a rugby stadium in Edinburgh where they shot that part of the movie. And he’s sitting there by himself, and the camera pans out, and you just see him sitting alone in all of those seats. And in comes his girlfriend, remember. She’s a very pretty girl in that movie, as I remember; she had a beautiful hat on. She comes in, she’s very demure, she sits down beside him, and he’s just morose, and he’s staring in front of himself. And she said, “Well, you did well.” He said, “I don’t want to hear it.” “You know, you came second.” And he says, “If I can’t win, I won’t run.” And she says, “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”[16]

“Well, if I can’t get this just exactly the way I want it, I’m not doing it at all.” You’re not doing anything ever in your life. And that’s a hard lesson for someone like me to learn, ’cause I want to do it absolutely the right way, the first time, perfect. And fear of not being able to do that can neutralize that kind of person. And we have to learn that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly! Because we can then learn to make progress and do it better the next time. But fear of failure prevents people.

Also, because the reward is inadequate for the effort required: “Well, what’re we getting out of this? I mean, are we gonna be better off at the end of it?” Or, simply because people are satisfied with the way things are. Or, because of a lack of respect or trust in the leadership. Or, because they simply want to glorify tradition for tradition’s sake.

In the 1940s, Swiss watches were it. They were the whole deal, to have a Swiss watch. They had 80 percent of the market of watches throughout the whole world. In the 1950s, some wee guy in Japan comes up with a digital mechanism, gets on a plane, comes to Geneva, gets the key guys in the Swiss watch industry together, and he says, “Listen, I got a mechanism here that goes in that will transform the movement inside of a watch, and I want to offer it to you.” The Swiss guys sat up on their big chairs, and they blew him out the door. They said, “We are the best. Swiss watches, with our movements, are unequaled anywhere in the world. See you!”

In the 1940s, Switzerland, with that kind of mechanism, had 80 percent of the world market. Today, 80 percent of the world market is digital. At that point, eighty thousand people were employed in the Swiss watch industry. Today, eighteen thousand people employed in the Swiss watch industry. Why? Because they said, “We don’t need to change. We’ve always done it this way, and we know we can always be successful.”

Overcoming Resistance to Change

Well, if we’re gonna see change take place—and with this I wrap it—first of all, we have to think through exactly what it is we believe needs to be changed. And there’s always something needs changed. At least for me there is. It’s frustrating to be around someone like me; I recognize that. That’s why we need one another. But nevertheless, there’s always something needs to be changed. I mean, nothing’s that great. I heard some people asking if they could have some of our bulletins. Yeah, sure, go ahead. I mean, what do you want to do, make paper airplanes or something? ’Cause I don’t think these bulletins are worth much. Why? Well, I’m just tired of them now. You say, “Well, what do you want to do?” Well, I’d like to change them. “Why?” Well, I’d just like to change them. “Well, don’t you have a better reason than that?” No.

But you see, I like to change… like, I’m already tired of this stool here, with these things on this side. We gotta get it over here. ’Cause this is cramping me, you know! We gotta get it moved. It’s starting to look like a routine, isn’t it? Say, “You’re nuts now. We thought it yesterday; we have concluded now.” But I love it when we change the furniture around in our house. Makes me feel like I have a new house! I know I don’t have a new house. But now the chair’s in this place! It’s a different view. I like the view. But for the person where the chair has to be in the same place, that freaks him out. Especially, you come down in the night—in your bare feet, you know. “Where’s my room? I don’t know! Where do I live?”

Think through what it is you’re gonna change. Know the people and develop their trust. That’s the advantage of being anywhere for a long time: they know you’re certifiably crazy—whereas they can only assume it when you’re there in the early years. But when you’re there for a while, they say, “Well, we know. I mean, don’t worry about this. This too will pass.” We gotta determine whether this is actually an idea, whether this is something from God, or whether this is just actually, you know… wind, you know. Which is a great story from the law courts of London, but I’ll leave it aside.

If we’re trying to influence people for the good of ourselves, that’s manipulation. If we’re seeking to influence people for the good of the kingdom, then that’s motivation.

If we’re gonna be change agents, we need to keep an adequate amount of change in our pockets. We need to identify the influencers and communicate our vision to them before the change is actually made public. This is not some clandestine way of operating, but it is similar to Nehemiah. He went around quietly. He went around secretly. He went around methodically. He only had a small group of guys with him. Who do you think he took with him? He took the people with him that he knew would be able to catch the vision quickly so that they could then in turn be catalysts for conveying the vision to others. If what we’re trying to do is influence people for the good of ourselves, then that’s manipulation. If what we’re seeking to do is influence people for the good of the kingdom, then that’s motivation. We need to show them how the change will benefit the organization and that we can help them to achieve their goals.

And all prospects for change needs to take place really incrementally and with a long-term schedule in mind. As we said this morning, we overestimate what we can do in a year, and we underestimate what we can do in five. We need to communicate clearly, we need to communicate often, we need to create a healthy discontent for the status quo. Because many of our church families were built on structures that were put together in another era and when circumstances were vastly different from what they are today.

And when a church changes—and this, I think, is where we can learn something from the pragmatists in the church growth movement—it is clear that when a church changes in size, then, you know, if a church of 100 people or 80 people is a Labrador, then when it becomes 150 people, it doesn’t just become a big Labrador. It might become a small Shetland pony. And since it’s now a small Shetland pony, you probably don’t want to walk down the High Street with it, you know, on a leash, ’cause you’ll look stupid. But of course, you wouldn’t want to ride on the back of your Labrador down the High Street either, ’cause that would be equally daft. So the way in which we’re dealing with the Shetland pony is different from the way in which we’re dealing with the Labrador.

And the mistake that we often make as our churches develop in size is we think, “Well, we got this down. We did this before; therefore, we just do this again.” But you can’t do it again, because it’s totally different. Think of the circumstances when I came to this church in ’83 and there were, like, five full-time employees. It’s a totally different thing when it’s today. Oh, there are principles that run through the same. The biblical principles are the same. But in terms of the way in which we move people and energize people and do all these things, it’s so vastly different.

The wrong decision at the wrong time is a disaster. The wrong decision at the right time is a mistake.[17] The right decision at the wrong time is unacceptable. And the right decision at the right time is what we’re gonna strive for. And we’re gonna look over our shoulders and say, “We made a mistake there. We were precipitous in the way we tried to move people forward.”

Derek Prime’s got a great statement where he says, in going into meetings where there are significant decisions to be made, he’s learned over the years to make sure that while he goes into the meeting knowing his own mind, he tries not to go into the meeting with his mind made up. And there is a difference between dealing with a leader who knows his own mind and dealing with a leader whose mind is made up. Because if we believe in the parity and plurality of leadership within the church—that we do learn from one another, that we depend upon one another—then it is a major danger for those of us who’ve been given any kind of leadership amongst leaders to fall foul of exercising a kind of tyrannical rule whereby we have so intimidated the people around us that they’re unprepared to call in question the way in which we’re going, because it’s not simply that they know that we know our minds, but it is that we already have our minds made up.

Father, we pray that as we have a break and as we meet in a smaller context, that you will continue to bless and encourage us. I pray, Lord, for some men who are here, and they’re longing to see things move forward, and they’re stymied by the demand for the status quo where they are. I pray that you will give them wisdom. Grant them patience. If it please you, Lord, be at work, even today, in surprising ways in the minds of those that they long to catch the vision and move forward. For those of us, Lord, who may be guilty of agitation rather than genuine forward movement, we pray that you will guard us and guide us and help us, and remind us always that Christ is our Lord and Master, and it is he we serve. Hear our prayers, O God, and let our cries come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] See 1 Chronicles 4:10.

[2] See Luke 11:1–2; Matthew 6:9.

[3] See Psalm 19:7–9.

[4] W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951), 11.

[5] Attributed to W. E. Sangster in Paul E. Sangster, Doctor Sangster (London: Epworth, 1962), 109.

[6] See John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress.

[7] See Psalm 127:1.

[8] Nehemiah 2:5 (paraphrased).

[9] Nehemiah 2:6 (NIV 1984).

[10] Nehemiah 2:6 (paraphrased).

[11] Nehemiah 2:7 (paraphrased).

[12] Nehemiah 2:8 (paraphrased).

[13] Nehemiah 2:18 (NIV 1984).

[14] See Exodus 17:1–4.

[15] M. Geraldine Guinness, The Story of the China Inland Mission, 3rd ed. (London: Morgan and Scott, 1894), 1:238.

[16] Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (1981). Paraphrased.

[17] John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, 10th anniv. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 236–38.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.