Tackling Opposition to Change
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Tackling Opposition to Change

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 1

Where there is life, there will be the need for change—and whenever someone proposes change, someone else will inevitably oppose it. Looking to Acts and Nehemiah for guidance, Alistair Begg explores the reasons people resist change, as well as the steps leaders can take to implement change and address opposition.


Sermon Transcript:

From Nehemiah 4:10:

“Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, ‘The strength of the laborers is giving out … there[’s] so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’

“Also our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and [we] will kill them and put an end to the work.’

“[And] then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us.’”

And then in Acts chapter 6, and the familiar passage there of how, as the numbers were increasing, the need for strategic planning became more and more apparent:

“In those days when the number of disciples [were] increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’

“This proposal pleased the whole group.” And they chose these individuals as the folks to fulfill the task.

And then in Acts 9:31:

“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”

Father, I pray that as we return to the opportunity of this day, that once again you will give us clarity of thought and expression, that you will teach us in our interaction with one another, now and in the Q and A session to follow. Thank you for our partnership in the gospel and for the sense that we feel of being learners together from the one who knows the answers. We thank you for Christ, the Head of the church, and we pray that you would bless us now. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, I want to first of all acknowledge that I address this subject much more out of a desire to try and help myself than out of any great wisdom that I have gleaned over the years so as to be able to help you. I figure if I keep talking about this, I might learn how to do it. And if I do it publicly, it might save me from convincing myself that I’m actually better at it than I am. You know, when you play golf by yourself, it’s possible to cheat dreadfully and to convince yourself that you are actually very close to scratch, when in point of fact you didn’t even manage to play bogie golf. And if you have somebody with you, of course, it cures all of that. And so, to talk about these things in such a large assembly prevents me from living in the realm of illusion.

By and large, churches are not good at making changes. And since those most opposed to them are often the most vociferous, many times the leadership settles for immediate gratification rather than tackling the opposition to change and pushing through to what we believe is right for us.

But given that we would endeavor at all under God to establish vision and to see it earthed in the practicalities of our day, we recognize that change is a very difficult thing for most people—and for some in particular. And therefore, by and large, churches are not good at making changes. And since those who are most opposed to them are often the most vociferous in their responses, many times the leadership settles for a happy life—at least potentially so—and for immediate gratification rather than for the delayed gratification that comes from tackling the opposition to change and pushing through to the eventuality that we believe is right for us.

Coming as I do from the British Isles, we are not known for our ability to move quickly on things, either in the business world or certainly in church life. Probably if there ever is an area of the church world where the motto “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end” could be ascribed to church work, then Britain certainly has that. The church that I served in Scotland, in the evening that I bade farewell to them, made a number of speeches, some of which were encouraging. And in the course of one of them, one of the senior leaders described me in this way: he said, “Alistair came to us as a young man in a hurry, and he leaves us as a young man in a hurry.” Everybody except me seemed to understand what was meant by that, and I still don’t know, after all these years, whether it was a compliment or an insult. The way I tend to look at things, I’m assuming it was an insult. But I recognize the truthfulness of it. The future comes in at the rate of sixty seconds a minute. There are places to go and people to meet. There really is no time for setting up too much in terms of celebrations about the past, because the future beckons us—at least, that’s the way I tend to operate.

And certainly, where there is life, there is always change. When I came here, my children were four, and two and a half, and ten months; now they’re eighteen, sixteen, and fourteen. And there’s been dramatic change, because there is life. And part of the challenge has been in ordering that change and in framing the change, and in giving reign to where it needs to be given reign to and correction where it needs to be corrected. And the same is true where there is life in a church.

I have not experienced a great deal of church life, but I recognize that in the years that I’ve been here in the States, we’ve done a number of things that you’re really not supposed to do. We sold the building to which I came three years after we arrived, which didn’t go over well with a significant number of the people who had already become wedded to the building. Silly idea, really, when you think about it: why you would be wedded to a building. And then we moved into a high school, which we thought would last about a year and a half, and it ended up being six and a half years. That didn’t go over well with a number of people either. And in the process of that, we changed the constitution once, and then we changed it a second time, we changed it a third time, and I’m actually in the mood right now for changing it again as we anticipate our annual meeting, which is such a falderal that is really quite ridiculous. All these things you have to send out ten days before the second Thursday in the fifth month of the ninth year of the twenty-seventh cycle of the moon and get yourself all tied up in knots, and people who don’t pay one bit of attention to anything spiritual in the church sit like hawks, waiting to see if you miss the deadline for some of these things. And so I’m about to make a fairly strident approach to that in the next few months and get rid of most of it. We also changed the name of our church, and that’s not something that you’re supposed to do either. So basically, I’ve done a lot of really dumb things over the time, and therefore, I need to learn from people how to handle opposition to change, because there’s been a fair amount of it.

And the unsettling features of it, however, have not outweighed the sense of necessity; we haven’t done this in a cavalier fashion, in a haphazard way at all, just for the sake of it. We’ve done it strategically and purposefully—and hopefully, kindly. But nevertheless, there are people who are dreadfully opposed to change. And so I’d like to think just for a moment about why it is that people resist change and say a number of things that, again, are not original to me. These are gleaned from here, there, and everywhere—mainly from my youth ministers in the church, who always think more strategically than those of us who were born a little sooner. And they helped me very much in relationship to this.

Why People Resist Change

Why do people resist change? Why do we resist change when we are on the receiving end of it? Well, one reason is because we didn’t initiate it and we don’t own it. Because we didn’t think it up—or because they didn’t think it up—they don’t like it. It’s okay if they think it up, but if they don’t think it up, they’re not with it. And there are some people who just are put together in that way. If it wasn’t their idea, it’s a bad idea. And so the skill with those folks is making them feel as though all the good ideas are their ideas. This takes quite some time and skill; haven’t mastered it, but people tell me that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Secondly, people resist change because, frankly, it is disrupting to their established routine. It disrupts their established routine. And we are—tend to be—creatures of habit, and therefore, anybody who disrupts the way in which we approach things tends to be a threat, and therefore, if we like the routine and it appeals to us far more than the prospect of the change, then we tend to oppose it.

I just, as you know, came back from Ireland, and I was struck again by how far behind the UK is in relationship to so many things. I say that; it pains me. I don’t mean, as sort of an adopted cousin of America, that I can allow the luxury of firing salvos at both sides, you know—that I can come over here and chide you, and then while I’m over here, I can chide them. But the fact is, they are really quite slow off the mark in certain things. And as I was shown around this building with obvious limitations, it was just remarkable the way certain rooms were in certain places. Didn’t make any sense whatsoever, you know. There was no reason why this room was upstairs and another room was downstairs. And in my naivety, I said, “Well, why don’t you just flip the rooms, you know? Why don’t you do the downstairs function downstairs and the upstairs function upstairs? It would seem, you know, to be fairly straightforward.”

“Oh no, no, no, no, no, no. We couldn’t possibly do that.”

“Why not?”

“Well…” And then it went into the explanations why not. Because people have got into a routine, and although it is eminently ridiculous to do what they’re doing, the routine is sacrosanct, and therefore they oppose any possibility of moving the chairs. And those are the chairs.

One classic illustration of it I heard of but didn’t observe involved an American preaching in Wales. He was in the vestry with the minister and some of the deacons, the Baptist church in Wales. And as the minister came out of the vestry, he came into a long corridor, which was immediately behind the pulpit area. There were two doors into the pulpit area, and the minister gestured to open the door that was immediately in front of him. At the door, no more than ten paces away, was the church secretary—a significant figure, a bit like the clerk of session—and he said, “Excuse me, minister, what are you doing?”

“Well,” said the minister, “I’m just going into the pulpit area. I’m taking our guest here, the gentleman from America.”

“Oh no,” said the gentleman ten paces away at the other door. He said, “We don’t go in that door.”

“Well,” the minister said, “well, just seemed to make sense to go in the door with my guest.”

“Oh no,” said the gentleman, “that is the evening door. This is the morning door.”

And so the minister said, “Well, we’re going to go in this door,” and so he bustled down, because it was his job to open the door, and he felt bad ’cause he was at the wrong door to open it. Instead of getting at the right door and getting with the program, he stood over there and make a fuss about it, you know? And when he finally got down and the people walked past him, the visitor from America said that, as he was the last person in of the group, the chap standing at the—now what was in his mind the wrong door—simply looked at the group past and said, “Most peculiar.”

Thirdly, people resist change because of fear of the unknown. Straightforward stuff. “Well, what’ll happen if we move? What’ll happen if we change this?”—so on. In the same way as Nehemiah was introducing these people to things that were dimensions of it that were unknown to them; they had never faced opposition because they weren’t doing anything that would bring about opposition. They were basically doing nothing. As soon as someone with decisive leadership led them to stirring activity, then they would face all kinds of challenges, and the fear of the unknown would be a restricting factor.

Also, and fourthly, the risk of failure. We’d rather not try anything than fail. And so, because we’re so tyrannized by the prospect of failing, we just won’t do anything. And that can as much be a paralyzing factor in the experience of the leader as it can be a debilitating factor in those who are responding to leadership. The possibility of the challenges of the Jerusalem project to which Nehemiah gave himself—the possibility for disintegration and disruption and failure—were written all over the project. And he needed to overcome any sense of that that was there in his own life and also, then, be able to lead the people forward on the basis of what God had put in his heart to do.

Fifthly, people resist change because in their minds, the reward that comes from the change is actually inadequate for the effort that’s required in making the change. In other words, what they get out of it is not good enough for what they are apparently going to have to put into it.

“Well, we want to reconfigure the way that we do pastoral care in the church.”

“What will this mean?”

“Well, it will mean that you won’t have the same familiar little group of people that you have had pastoral oversight of for the last twelve years, which means you won’t be able to hang around with your cronies.”

“Ah.”

“It will also mean that you’ll have to meet and engage a whole new group of people to whom you’ve never really given any attention and that you’ll have to get to know.”

“Ah. Well, I think I’d rather just leave things the way they are, because the prospect of any benefit coming from that is certainly far less than the challenge that is represented in making the change.”

Sixthly—and this is inherent in all that I’m saying—because people are satisfied with the way things are. Now, we ought not always to create a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo; many things should give us a basis for satisfaction. We should be grateful for a job well done and for things running smoothly. But where there needs to be change, a satisfaction with something that is in need of change and is obviously not too good ought not to inhibit us from leading with vision.

Seventhly, because of a lack of respect for leadership. I get this all the time. People will come to me and say, “Well, we don’t respect the leaders, and they want to do this,” or “they want to do that.” And that, of course, raises other issues. It raises character issues—the way in which we lead, and the principles from which we lead. This is straightforward stuff.

And then eighthly, the glorification of tradition for tradition’s sake. And again, I haven’t seen too much of this in America—certainly not in the church in which I serve, because we haven’t really been around long enough to establish too many traditions. But I can tell you that when we decided that we weren’t going to use the choir on every Sunday, that was a major potential for revolution. Warren Wiersbe said that when the devil fell out of heaven, he landed in the choir loft. And I’m inclined to believe him. And people who are in the choirs always get really tense when I mention this. And I don’t mean to get you tense, but I’ve observed more potential coup d’états coming out of people dressed in robes than I’ve observed in any other place in twenty-two years of pastoral ministry. And I’m not saying that for effect; I’m saying that as a fact. And there’s something about musicians that is kind of weird. Because musicians are trained to be performers. And performers perform. And performing is not the same as worshipping. And if you’ve spent your life believing you’re a performer, and somebody just closed down the time of your performance, you may find that really offensive. However, if you are a worshipper, you won’t mind if you worship from the back, or from the side, sitting down, standing up, or flat-out lying on your back. Each of my children are musicians, so… And I can play the guitar a little bit myself. And I took piano lessons to the point of distraction. So, I mean, I’m not trying to be a funny guy. But there is something about that. I’ve seen it, I think, in every church in which I’ve been. Yes, I have. Yeah, I have. A revolution in the choir loft, because tradition is valued for tradition’s sake.

How People Respond to Change

Now, let me just keep moving along. And what I did the last time in Chicago is, I just moved through this as quickly as I could, and then Jim and I just got into the question and answer thing faster. And people responded to it in that way.

When a proposal for significant change is introduced, people fall into all kinds of categories, responding in this way.

About 2 percent of the people are innovators. They are entrepreneurs by nature, and they think in visionary terms. They’re regularly talking about the church. They’re regularly talking about its future. When you’re with them, they are conceiving of ways of doing things, and they think strategically about the possibilities of moving forward. They are daunting people to be around if we tend to be more traditional in our perspective, but yet they are vital people to have—and sadly, there are all too few of them, at least from my perspective. So about 2 percent of the people are innovative, and when change is on the go, they’re never happier. That’s what really fires them up and floats their boat.

About 10 percent of our people will be the kind of folks that can adopt new things quickly. They get on board very quickly. They know a good idea when they hear it, they know a good strategy when they see it, and they tend to say, “We understand this, and this is a wonderful plan.” It has to do with all kinds of givens.

For example—and I can only illustrate out of where I’ve most recently been—but again, it was a very interesting circumstance for me to be in Northern Ireland. And I moved about fifty miles at one point in my journeys. And in one location I heard the story of a couple in this other location who had started, I was told, a Christian nightclub. And they said that this was a very bad thing, and it just was referred to in a very uncongratulatory fashion. All right? I asked the individual, “Have you ever visited this place?

“Oh no,” the person said, “no, I never have.”

“Well,” I said as graciously as I could, “maybe you ought to visit it before you start talking about it.”

So, he didn’t really think that was a good idea, but we left it at that. Okay? So, they’ve got this notion of a Christian nightclub.

When I get fifty miles away to the place, I discover that what they’ve opened is actually a youth center, which has video screens, spiral staircases, old bicycles on the wall, and a counter downstairs and a counter upstairs with Coca-Cola machines and potato chips and one or two other things. And it is targeted for young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, because at that point—in Ireland, particularly—there is a tremendous decline in churches’ ability to hold teenagers. And the pull of pubs and bars and discos is very, very significant. And the average church offering for the young people is… marginal. (That was an act of great self-control on my part, and I just want to acknowledge it. I was thinking of saying something much worse. But it is marginal. Okay?)

So here’s a businessman and his wife with a heart for young people who invest significant dollars as a means of reaching a significant part of the community where there are high, high incidences of drug and alcohol abuse. Fifty miles away, without ever seeing it, totally opposed to it, is Mr. X. Why? ’Cause it challenges, in a dramatic way, what is going on or what isn’t going on in their particular location. And such individuals are not early adopters. They’re certainly not innovators. They tend to be fence-sitters. And that is, they respond ultimately to the opinions of others. Once the status quo has been established in relationship to change—once we know the way in which the wind is blowing, the way in which the majority seems to be going—then such individuals will tend to cast their lot with that.

And the reason I mention this is because all of these people in their personalities differ, and they tend to be represented in the leadership with which most of us are working. And the skill package, it seems, that we need is to be able to harness the innovator; you know, dampen at times the enthusiasm of the early adopter; and try and move along the fence-sitters. Because there’s about 60 percent of the people sit on the fence. Two percent innovate, 10 percent adopt early, 60 percent sit on the fence, and then 20 percent—the kinda last group to adopt anything that’s moving, the last group to endorse the idea—they always see the pitfalls, they always see the problems, they always tell you why it’s never been done. They always say that “Mrs. So-and-So, if she’d been here, she woulda been really ticked about this,” and so on. And there’s all of that kind of stuff that goes on with them.

And then there are 8 percent who are the laggards, or the mules, if you like. And new ideas are seldom if ever adopted by this group. I’m sure there’s a group of these donkeys that move from church to church in America. Every time it gets them beyond their comfort level, since they cannot change, they have to go to another place that seems to be shoring up their own particular tradition and status quo. And I’m not talking in doctrinal terms here at all; I think you understand that. I’m not talking about spiritual declension. I’m not talking about heresy. I’m assuming a level of commitment to the Scriptures and the well-being of the church and so on.

Overcoming Opposition to Change

Now, the last thing I want to say is simply this: that if there are steps to implementing change and overcoming opposition to change, we need to identify what they are. And I want just to run through a few of these. Again, I’m stating, in many cases, the obvious; I make no apology for it.

In light of what we’ve said this morning, it is imperative that we think through exactly what it is that we would like to change or we believe needs to be changed; that the reconnaissance factor I think we made much of this morning—enough of, at least—and that is inherent in that first point.

We need to know our people, and we need to develop trust relationships with our people. That can only be achieved over time.

Secondly, that we need to know our people, and we need to develop trust relationships with our people. That can only be achieved over time. And that’s why I said again this morning that in coming here to the States, I virtually had to begin again after three years. Because a lot of the endeavors, which I think were good endeavors, that I was thinking of in the first thirty-six months were not possible in terms of implementation, because I didn’t really know the people, the people didn’t really know me, and we hadn’t had time to develop that trust relationship. Now some fourteen years into the opportunity with the church, it makes a difference, because people then have seen the good, the bad, the ugly; they know your quirks, they know your personality, they know that you can have forty bad ideas an hour, and they know how to harness and hold you. So… but it is imperative that we know our people and develop trust.

Also, thirdly, that we recognize that in leadership we need to keep an adequate amount of change in our pockets, as it were—that we do need, in some measure as leaders, to be agents for change. I mean, we should be changing stuff, don’t you think? I mean, if it always remains the exact same, something is wrong. And so, some of us are not as good at that as others, and that’s why it’s helpful to think through some of the implications.

We need, fourthly, to identify the influencers—the people in our congregations and in our leadership who, in turn, are able to influence others—and we need to communicate our vision to them in order that they might be on board to communicate the vision to others. So, for example, it is imperative that, in sharing vision, that we include our leadership, so that they may temper unbridled enthusiasm, that they may give clarity to unframed thinking, and that they may also have time to come on board with what we’re doing.

I don’t even know if this illustration fits, but it just comes to mind. When I was in this church in Scotland on my own, I had occasion to make contact with a well-known minister here in the United States. It came about as a result of a family member worshipping in his church. And this individual sent to me, via my sister, some information about the church in which he was serving in the States. And in writing to thank him, I invited him to complete his education and to come to Scotland—to complete his education by coming to Scotland. He wrote back and said that he would do so if I organized a pastor’s conference. I wasn’t in a position to do that, and so I just filed the letter.

Then one evening I came home, and my wife told me that this chap had been on the phone from the West Coast of the United States and that he was going to call again at midnight, our time—which was, I guess, four o’clock in the afternoon, Los Angeles time. And at four in the afternoon, this gentleman phoned up and introduced himself to me on the phone and said, “Were you serious about that invitation that you extended?”

“Oh yes,” I said, “I was.”

“Well,” he said, “I would like to come.”

I said, “You would?”

He said, “Yes.” And he told me when; there were some other circumstances that were pushing him in this direction.

And so right there and then, I said, “Fine.” I said, “Come!” And I invited him to come, I think it was, for ten days. And I told him that he could preach in the church, that we would do evening meetings, we would involve ourselves in various pursuits, and I would take him and show him every castle in Scotland that we had time to see. And then I put the phone down and said to myself, “How am I gonna explain this to the leadership in the church?” So I said, “Well, it won’t be difficult. They’ll be excited as well.”

So I got to the Wednesday evening meeting and I said, “I’ve got some great news for you.” And as I began to bubble over with enthusiasm about the prospect, I was met by just the deadness and the darkness of night in terms of their reaction. And in the course of all of my enthusiasm, I had explained that Americans tended to be fairly well served, and therefore it would really be out of keeping for us simply to put them in the homes of one of our people; after all, most of them didn’t have a shower, and they wouldn’t like it. And so I said, “I’ve just gone ahead and made reservations for two rooms in the local hotel, which is down on the River Clyde.”

Well, at that point, a couple of them came totally unglued and announced the fact that they thought this was not a great plan. Well, I soldiered on. And at one point, in announcing how much it was going to cost for this accommodation, in great frustration over the prolonged agony of, you know, $250 or whatever it was, I said to the group of assembled gentry, I said, “Listen, if it’s that big of a problem, I’ll pay for the hotel myself.” Which was an act of terrific bravado, because I didn’t have enough money hardly to buy myself a Coke, let alone pay for the elder and his wife and the minister and his wife to live for a week in this hotel. And at that point, one gentleman jumped up out of his seat, and he said, “Out of order in the chair! Out of order in the chair!” I didn’t know what that meant, but I figured it was bad. And it was! It meant that I had violated my leadership responsibilities by making such a snide comment, and he felt that I should be removed from the position of chairmanship, which by that point would have been an act of great mercy—for me, apart from them.

Well, I won’t bore you with all the details, but I soldiered on. I had nowhere else to go. I couldn’t phone the guy up and tell him I was full of hot air. And so he came. And he ministered very effectively. And we visited the castles, and our people had a fantastic time. Even some of these men who were determined that they weren’t going to have a good time even seemed to be having a nice time.

We’d put him in this hotel. It was run by a pagan. It was run by a pagan! I mean, the man was a pagan. I mean, he was a self-confessed pagan. I had got to know him a little bit, because I conducted wedding receptions in his hotel. And he’d been intrigued by me and had obviously begun to pay attention to what was going on, and so he had been interested in having this foursome from America stay in the hotel. And so, they came and they left. And the church treasurer paid the bill. And Les, who was the owner of the hotel, sent me a letter, and enclosed in the letter was the check that had been sent from our treasurer to him. And it was torn in half. And he said, “It has been a great privilege to have these people in my hotel, and I would rather not take the money, if that’s okay.” And so, then I had the opportunity to go back in to Mr. “Out of Order in the Chair,” and I took the two halves of the check, and I stuck one half up one nostril and the oth— No! No, no. No. No, I did not. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

Now, I learned a lesson from that. I learned a number of lessons from it. And that is that in influencing people for the good of myself, that’s manipulation. In influencing people for the good of the kingdom, that’s motivation. And they misunderstood—I probably made it easy for them to do so—but I didn’t have any personal agenda in it at all. I was simply excited at the prospect of our congregation experiencing the benefits of this ministry. And I failed to influence the influencers, and I almost foundered on the rocks.

Along with that, and the fifth thing—and I’ll just hasten to the end—the fifth thing is, it’s obviously important to show people how the change is going to benefit the organization, benefit whatever it is—the youth ministry, our church, or our music program, whatever it is—and in this way to show them how it will help to achieve the overarching vision and goals that we have established.

That, incidentally, is why it is so imperative that a church has an overarching vision and clearly delineated goals. Because it then allows us a point of reference to determine whether we are making it or missing it. You know, if you hit balls on a driving range, and all you’ve got simply is three and a half acres of grass in front of you, you can convince yourself that you’re actually striking this ball with, you know, with tremendous power and rhythm and accuracy. The one way to determine whether you are or not, of course, is to have someone go out about 150 or 200 yards and stick a flag in the ground. Once you stick the flag in the ground, then you determine whether you’re hittin’ it with a draw, with a fade, whether you’re hittin’ it at all. That’s why often we don’t like the flags, ’cause we’d rather live with the illusions. Churches have to have flags. We have to earth the great principles of the New Testament in identifiable, stated objectives.

You know, Jay Adams, in one of his little books on preaching, says that our wives ought to be able to nudge us—remember this?—about three o’clock on a Sunday morning, waken us, and say, “What are you preaching on in the morning?” And we ought to be able to answer in a sentence and fall back to sleep. He said if we can’t answer in a sentence, it’s because we don’t know what we are preaching on the following morning.[1] Somebody ought to be able to nudge us and say, “Okay, tell me about your church, about your ministry. What are you doing? Where are you moving?” And we ought to be able to answer. And not simply, “Well, the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,[2] and therefore we would like to try…” You know, the answer can’t be the Westminster Confession of Faith, you know, subsection 6; that’s not a good enough answer.

You go in the bagel shop, they know the answer. They have it written on the wall when you walk in: Bruegger’s Bagels—at least in Cleveland—and this is a paraphrase, but it essentially says, “Our plan is to stuff you full of bagels.” Right? So it’s not a problem; I mean, nobody’s in any doubt. We know what they’re trying to do. And they do too! And that’s why they wear the hats. Because they wear the hat because they’re part of the team, and the team is heading for here, and they wrote it on the wall, and they wrote it inside of them, and they’re moving it towards us. Was it Hendricks? Most churches think they’re doing fine, because they don’t know what they’re doing! What are we doing?

Okay, I’m gonna wrap this up now, because I’m getting a little silly. Also, then, sixthly, change needs to take place in increments, with a long-term schedule in mind. We need to build the procedures for change. We need to take time to lay the groundwork. We need to give time for a response. We need to listen more than we talk. We need to observe, probably, more than we begin to implement. They’re all elementary things.

You guys who are in business here today are sitting, going, “Oh, I wish he would shut up,” because you’re over your heads in this. Well, you want to tell me why you can’t think the same way in church life? “Because the church is not a business!” No, we understand that. But would you not agree that the principles of the book of Nehemiah would translate very effectively into the business structures of some of the Fortune 500 companies in America—and frankly, have done? People have built business models right out of the book of Nehemiah, because they understand the functionality of it.

So it’s not enough for us to say, “Well, we’re not a business. Therefore, we will endorse and embrace chaos.” The answer is, we are not a business; we understand that. We are a church. Therefore, we are framed by biblical principles and parameters, but we don’t take our brains out when we’re thinking about how we’re going to reach a city for Jesus Christ.

And the lay guys have gotta step up. It’s not right that you can spend—if any of you are here—can be involved in strategic plans in Fortune 500 companies where you’re involved in the administration level and you’re making strategic involvements that cost $150 and $200 million in change in your organization, and then you will come into meetings in a church and be a total pain in the neck about something that is involving $8,000 or $10,000. ’Cause it’s doublethink! You got your own “two cities” going. (Nobody’s here, so they’re not listening. That’s okay.) We overestimate what we can do in a year, and we underestimate what we can do in five years. That’s why the change has to be incremental.

Seventhly, we need to communicate clearly and often.

Eighthly, we need to create a healthy discontent for the status quo. A healthy discontent for the status quo. I’m in favor of taking every organization of the church, every fragment of the church, and putting it under review at least on an annual basis—that part of the responsibility of eldership in the church should be to put the whole operation under review. Not in a threatening way. Not in a tyrannical way at all. In a way that is prayerful and is encouraging to the people who are in leadership in those responsibilities. So that they know, for example, in the month of February, they will come in and they will share about the ministry—the encouragements that are there, the discouragements, the challenges, and so on. They will ask the elders’ counsel on certain things, the elders will have an opportunity to ask questions, and they will pray together. If there is need for change in strategy, then we will make note of it and we will consider it. If the review is such that it simply reinforces the well-being of what’s going on, then we will rejoice in that, and we will leave things exactly the way they are. But the one thing we mustn’t do is simply assume that all is well on the western front because no one is shouting or nothing is squeaking.

I remember in Scotland there were two old ladies who had had a children’s evangelism project, and it went from their home. And these ladies were just… the hand of God was on them! I don’t know what happened to them with kids. God just made them special with children. And they saw lots of boys and girls in their community come to faith in Jesus Christ. Well, after they were gone, somebody was still running the operation out of the front room. Nobody was coming. Because they were no good! They didn’t have the heart, they didn’t have the gift, and it wasn’t working. Well, go in and shut it down! “Well, you can’t do that.” Why? Exactly.

I was doing brass rubbings in a church in England. You know the brass rubbings? On the graves. They lay brasses down over graves? You know, “Lord Smythe” and a little sort of brass. You should know about it, because I sold a number of these rubbings to an interior design store in Ardmore. Really nice shop; it was called O’Neil & Bishop. And they bought a number of my brass rubbings, and they’re hanging in some very nice homes in greater Philadelphia. They charged exorbitant prices for these things. I could not believe it when I saw my paltry renderings hanging in the hallways of this store. I mean, it was a buzz! Because I would rub these as a student so that I could get enough money to come and chase down this girl that I really liked—who’s at home with my children right now.

And I was rubbing brasses in Ely in Cambridgeshire. And the church warden came—it was a Saturday morning—and he said, “I’m gonna have to have you leave. The children’s service begins in about twenty minutes.” So I said, “That’s not a problem, be glad to have a break. I’ll go get a coffee.” So I went out, and I went across the road from the church, and I went in a little place, a café, and I got myself a coffee. And where I was sitting, I could see out the window. And it never occurred to me at first, but I’d been there probably twenty minutes, and it suddenly dawned on me, “I wonder where everybody’s coming from, because I don’t see anybody going into the children’s service.” And I stayed there for a while, and I thought, “You know, I don’t think anybody went into the children’s service. Maybe there wasn’t a children’s service. Maybe it was cancelled.”

And so, intrigued, I went across the road, back up through the gravestones, opened the door at the back, and looked in. And as I went into the vestibule, before I could see, I could hear the voice. [Imitates dull preaching.] I said, “Oh, well, there is a service,” you know? And I went in. There wasn’t a soul in there. There was a Labrador dog that belonged to the vicar! I’m not making this up. All the boys and girls in the town were watching TV, playing sports, attending school events, shopping with their mothers. There had been a time, presumably, when eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning was a great time for a kids’ service—but it hadn’t been anytime in the last twenty-five years, that was for sure. And even the Labrador was asleep! Now, you gotta understand the guy’s worldview: sacramentalism, priest, priestly function. Doesn’t matter if you’re there or not; eleven o’clock, we do the children’s service. [Imitates dull preaching.] Do the children’s service.

Say, “Well, we don’t go to that extreme.” I’m sure we don’t. But if half of us analyzed a significant chunk of what we’re doing, you’d find a number of Labrador dogs kicking around. And stuff that was previously gifted, staffed on the basis of prior gifting, for which there is no present configuration of gifting to do the same thing, is being propped up by three short legs and a broken leg, instead of leadership having the courage to go in and reconfigure the thing and fix it.

And then the widows start to argue with one another, because things aren’t going the way they should go. And therefore, you need the apostles’ wisdom to say, “You know, we’re gonna have to do something strategic about this. We’ll get some guys that are full of the Holy Spirit, and we’ll put them in charge, and we will give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.”

Last thing. I’ve used my last golfing illustration. Probably you say I’ve got a problem. Yes, I do. But timing is everything, you know. Timing is everything. You see, you look at those guys, from behind, swing at a golf ball—it looks as though the golf ball couldn’t go anywhere, because of the way they drop their hands into the slot. And it’s only here that all of that fwoom comes. But from behind, you never see that. Some of us, you see, when we play golf, we put the fwoom in up here. If you do that—and I’m an expert at it—you know you stink. Sorry, I beg your pardon; I mean, you know you’re not very good. Because when you cast at the top, you lost the angle, you lost all the potential for power, and the only thing you can do is kind of scoop back to the ball, and it goes into one of those horrible fades. And you look at guys and you say, “Well, how do they make it go from right to left like that all the time?” It’s a number of things, but timing is crucial. And they don’t release the angle until the time is right.

Well, the wrong idea at the wrong time is a disaster. The wrong idea at the right time is a mistake. The right idea at the wrong time is unacceptable. And the right idea at the right time creates the potential for success.[3]


[1] Jay E. Adams, Preaching with Purpose: A Comprehensive Textbook on Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 31.

[2] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1. Paraphrased.

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

Copyright © 2021, 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.