On Vision: The Rich Young Ruler

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Disclaimer: This is not a debate thread regarding contemporary vs. traditional worship. This is a comment about change in the church.

So, I was speaking to a friend on the internet this afternoon regarding contemporary worship. He’s a fellow bass player and he was describing the rough transition from a traditional service to a contemporary one at his smallish church. Yes, anyone in church leadership knows…this is a horrible battle. However, in his case, the pastor, the leadership, and basically everyone in any sort of committee or leadership board at the church is adamantly for the transition. There is no opposition whatsoever from anyone in leadership. About 3/4 of the congregation seems to be on board but there are many people in the congregation adamantly opposed to any sort of change, especially in the order of worship.

So he was asking me for some advice: “What do you do to make/keep everybody happy?”
To which I replied: “Do you really want to keep everyone happy?”
After my bass player buddy’s jaw dropped (I’m assuming his jaw dropped…you know, internet, can’t see emotion), he asked what the heck I was talking about.
Me: “Let me reiterate. Do you, as church leaders, feel called to move in this direction, do you feel like this is where God is genuinely leading you?”
Him: “Absolutely!”
Me: “Then *why* do you care if everyone at your church is happy?”

Which made me think of this excerpt from Matthew regarding the rich young ruler.

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.                                                                                                                        -Matthew 19:21-22

Granted, let me first say this is not a highly theological treatise of this passage, but it came to mind as I was walking through this conversation.

Notice that in this passage Jesus didn’t say, “Well, look, I know your heart hasn’t changed and you really don’t want to sell your stuff, but we need the numbers and we could use your cash so what the heck, come on buddy, take up your diamond-encrusted twenty-four karat gold cross, take a Dave Ramsey course or two, and come follow me.” Jesus would have absolutely loved if this man would have followed him, but for it to work the man would have needed to be on board with Jesus’ vision. Otherwise, the guy would have been a distraction to Jesus and Jesus’ other followers. Jesus’ time on Earth was way too short to get hung up on people who he knew wouldn’t share his vision.

Unfortunately, we abandon vision in our churches all the time, don’t we? Sometimes it feels like we spend half of our time in ministry trying to appease those who are already in front of us simply because they’re already there, not because we expect them to ever be on board with what we’re doing. We’re willing to water down God’s vision for our churches to appease everyone yet in doing so we actively destroy the actual vision given to us and settle for whatever keeps the people already there happy. If I order steak and get a burger, I’m not going to enjoy it just because it’s still beef, and dare I say, when we abandon our vision, we’re giving God the burger.

Sure, by watering down our vision we keep the thirty people that would have been otherwise angry at us in our church, but we fail to bring in the two hundred that were hungry for what God was calling us, as leaders, to provide to the community. We’re not willing to accept that, maybe, just maybe, if we say ‘no’ to dissenters, that things will be OK. Why do we spend weeks, months, or even years trying to keep the few (often-big-money) congregants who don’t share vision at our churches? They’re not on board with our vision, they’re pushing back on everything, but we concede to them to keep them happy. In doing so, we create a lukewarm version of God’s vision, and we know how God feels about things that are lukewarm (the same way I feel about lukewarm coffee). What if, instead of spending all of our time caring for our terminal parishioners, sick only because of a disagreement of vision, we help them find other suitable churches? Then, we use that extra time and those extra resources to on-board people who actively love our vision? What would that look like? By the way, here’s a helpful hint: If someone hates the direction of your church and you gracefully approach them, there are probably ten other churches in your town doing exactly the thing you’re trying to get away from. Help them find a new place to fit in and they may even treat the situation with grace.

So, what does this mean? It means that, as leaders, we have to stand up for what we genuinely believe we are called to do. If God is calling you to lead a congregation in a direction and you get pushback from a small group of people, you have to be able to stand firmly and lovingly tell those people, “I love you, but this train’s leaving the station whether you’re on it or not.” The pastor from my home church in Dayton was great at this. Probably not the most graceful, but if there was ever a man on a mission to build the kingdom, it’s Pastor Mike. I wasn’t around during the formative years, but when he started there, there was some definite pushback regarding many of the changes. He was the first pastor I had ever seen in my life who would openly tell someone, “Look, I love you and I hope you find a great church, but this is where we’re called to be. If you don’t like where we’re going, I’ll even help you find another church, but I can not and will not lose our direction or vision.”

The first time I heard this, my mind was blown, I personally couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Looking back, however…our vision lost quite a few members up front. I wasn’t around but I’ve heard that we lost a good third or more of our congregation. Since then, however, we’ve grown from 150 on a given Sunday to 1,000+ weekly attendance in less than ten years, so I’ll leave you with this thought: Are you willing to make that sacrifice? Are you willing to accept the fact that pushing forward often means parting ways with people who may be dear to you? Or, are you perfectly fine with missing opportunities to live into God’s vision for you and your church for the sake of a few extra hugs and high fives on Sunday morning?