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12 Defining Moments: The Moment to Step Out

Do I have the courage to bring change?
12 Defining Moments: The Moment to Step Out
Image: Grant Faint / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: If you have missed any articles in this series, be sure to check out the Introduction article, where you can find all of the articles that have been released.

Defining moments are rarely, if ever, determined by us. Time is not some kind of raw material, pliable in our hands. Time belongs to God, and in the fullness of time, God acts in ways purposeful and perfect.

We are caught unawares by God’s movements. We have seen evidence of this in previous articles. The Spirit “blows where he wills” (John 3:8). When he chooses to enter and sweep through our lives, this moment has decisive significance. How we respond will give definition and shape to our work. A faithful response has the potential to, as one writer put it, “shimmer with the gleaming ripples that spread out with the fullness of time.”

You may be leading a church that no longer shimmers. The congregation has lost sight of, or resists, the essential marks of a church—ones that include the pure preaching of the Word. If your ministry context has lost its radiance, then prepare yourself for a divine encounter.

A moment will come when God summons you to boldly face the challenges and bring necessary change. The church is, after all, his bride for whom he has given his life. She is set apart to be brilliant, and we are held accountable to present the church to Christ as a pure virgin (2 Cor. 11:2). This will happen if we have been faithful—committed to preparing her and courageous to contest those forces that threaten the church’s beauty.

Reflection on My Divine Encounter

Long before I faced this defining moment, I had to come to terms with the pastoral vocation itself. Initially, I opposed the thought. I was entering seminary to deepen my knowledge of Scripture—not train to be an overseer of some religious institution. Most pastors I knew had been institutionalized into blandness. I much preferred campus ministry where the work was less formal and more fluid, more emergent than existent, and more missional than structured. And then, something changed.

Seminary chapels exposed me to a variety of pastors who were anything but dull. Their preaching inspired me. They were leading movements. Their congregations were changing the landscape. I began to realize I had been selling the church short. It is the church, in all its messiness, that is the core element in the Spirit’s strategy. And preaching is its prime labor.

God shifted my course. The night I was formally ordained and installed, there was a laying on of hands and a holy charge, I was going to change my world, be an instrument of God’s kingdom advancement. This, my first church, would be at the epicenter of divine activity. And then I woke up.

I was not standing on the bridge of a vessel charting the open seas. I found myself assigned to a boat at anchor, one sitting so long there were visible signs of listing. The church had not only lost momentum—it had lost movement. To my surprise, it wasn’t that people were desperate; most who remained on board seemed rather content with where the church was moored.

I needed courage. If change was to happen, there would need to be a holy resolve. A determination to avoid the comforts of maintenance management. A will to guide the church to full sail. A nerve to contend with those opposing my call to transformation. I sensed God was bringing me to this point. It was a defining moment.

When God calls a leader to restore radiance to his bride six things are required.

First, the Faith to Step into the Unknown

Generating change, no matter at what level, places us in uncharted territory. It requires an inner resolution to step out and trust God. If the church is going to allow the gospel to reform and overturn some of its time-honored rites, it begins with a pastor who is willing to administer timely jolts to those suffering narcolepsy.

In this moment, pastors cannot afford to be hesitant, apprehensive, and faithless. They will face a gravitational force that works against them, an inevitable entrenchment that will find their leadership an offense. They will need a force of will and conviction that God can do this.

Determined to bring change, one will need to ask: Does our condition require minor adjustments or something more substantive? Are we facing the need to renew or restore, or something more radical like reinvent?

I began to sense God was calling me to upset the equilibrium, abandon outgrown structures, and change prevailing attitudes. We would have to break old habits, rise above the rigidity and prevailing passivity, and believe in God for something better. The church is designed to thrive on the edge of change and in the center of history—not become consigned to inevitable decline and irrelevance.

Second, the Resolve to Earn Credibility

It’s not enough to trust God for change. We must gain the people’s confidence. This begins with winning over the present staff and board, a task that is ongoing. Trust does not come easily, especially in an aging church and recalcitrant leadership.

Building trust begins with listening, hearing people’s fears. Honoring rather than dismissing. Those hymns we find archaic are comprised of lyrics that have gotten many through the dark nights. The shelf worn liturgy we hope to jettison has, for many, provided order and predictability.

Credibility also grows as we learn to wait . This is not easy, especially if we have just returned from the latest church growth conference. Ginned up to change the world, I remember coming back ready to ditch certain relics of the past. But I found that while waiting can be wasting, it can also be centering. We slow to avoid getting ahead of God.

People grow in their confidence when they see that whatever energies we give to change will not come at the cost of competent leadership, moral excellence, faithful preaching, pastoral care, wise counsel, and effectual prayers.

Third, the Willingness to Tell the Whole Story

Every church is perpetually in transit, between a past that forms its memory and a vision that inspires its future. Leaders stand at the intersection between past and present, reading about its history and intuiting the future.

Looking back, one often finds the story of a core of people, full of faith and courage, who gathered to change the world. Envisioning the future, they sacrificed at every juncture. When pastors expand on the narrative, inserting “we” and “us” into the story, something changes. Resistors and malcontents begin to listen.

To accept decline dishonors those who have gone before us, those who believed God for growth. A resurrection God specializes in bringing things back to life. When we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and link present efforts to change, there is a fair chance people will begin to ask, “Why not?”

Real courage comes when we read deeper to find the reasons for decline. In many cases it is traced to sin.

My church had its chapters of faith; it also included accounts of misbehavior. Unwilling to confront their past, the community became devoid of power and enthusiasm. Would I have the courage to hold up a mirror? Would I call for a season of repentance, a change of heart and a new chapter filled again with hope and grace. These are the questions this defining moment confronted me with.

Fourth, the Will to Reset the Course

A church that is at anchor for long loses sight of its calling. This can also happen to a church on the move. Leaders can obsess over numbers, overlook the great commission to disciple, or shift from equipping the saints to doing the ministry themselves. Congregants can become mindless attenders. In my context, I was finding the people could no longer answer, “Why are we here?”

When the mission of God is at the center of a church’s existence, it is disturbingly seditious to the culture. Our church was losing this. There was a sense of sentness, but it seemed to apply to those few who were the missionaries sent abroad. We needed what Tim Keller describes as “a wholesale reorientation of the church to its missionary vocation.” The mission had to be redefined and applied to everything we did.

Grasping the mission can mean deconstructing and constructing. Flattening walls—literally and figuratively. One must be brave to remove antiquated practices that impede the purpose. One must be intentional to envision the future as well as invest in the effort to become strategic. Every ministry must draw new s-curves to replace those that have flattened out, ones intended to point us ahead.

Congregants must believe it is possible. No matter our natural inclination to seek safe harbor, God’s unchanging power tells us the church is to be robust and dynamic. It can overcome past failures and seasons of faithlessness. Nothing in God’s revelation says the church must devolve into decay and irrelevance.

Fifth, the Nerve to Confront Resistance

Erwin McManus notes that the place where pastors lose their jobs, their health, and their minds—the place where one experiences pain, abuse, and persecution—is not some foreign land. The most dangerous place is where a pastor is seeking to effect change. One is upsetting habits and potentially trampling over former memories.

Splashing cold water on complacent hearts will lead to intransigence, passive aggressive and active aggressive behaviors. A tug of war will emerge between innovators and traditionalists. There will be a loss of friendships and threatening statements on comment cards. I have known capable and godly pastors who, facing such resistance, left the ministry and never came back.

Any pastor who would be a decisive center and force for truth and change must live with the crisis created by truth and change. We must ask: Do we really want to make a difference? In such moments, the Scriptures give us strength, reminding us we are not alone. There are numerous examples of change agents who, though criticized and attacked, overcame a failure of nerve.

Nehemiah faced ongoing resistance because of his efforts to rebuild a wall. His faith, however, enabled him to live above intimidation and ceaseless criticism. Paul dealt with people who did him much harm as he challenged the church to move on from its past and conform to godliness. Nonetheless, he pressed on and finished the course (Phil. 3:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). So must we.

Sixth, the Tenacity to Stay at It

Change is never complete this side of heaven. What is out in the future will soon be lost in the past. Without ongoing vigilance and commitment to change, we will find God bringing us back to a similar defining moment.

Inattention and fatigue, a.k.a. acedia, can easily set in. A slow, spiritual boredom is determined to take over. Every institution faces the peril of drift, of being drawn back to the harbor of comfort—and irrelevance. What must leaders be tenacious to watch for? Here are some.

Order vs. Rigidity

Organization takes precedence over organism. Structures are necessary. Every movement needs order, for order establishes unity and stability. It is why Paul left Titus in Crete to appoint elders and instituted lists in Ephesus to ensure widow care (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 5:9). Even the most spontaneous and prophetic of movements cannot last unless they find institutional form.

But order can also harden into rigidity. Any perceptive church can see this. Structures have a way of interfering with movement. The church can become resistant to new ideas and slowly build walls that constrict movement, limit new initiatives, and block creative ideas.

Past vs. Future

Future is mortgaged for the past. Over time, the main narrative of the church can shift to the past tense, replacing present and future. Memories begin to push dreams off stage. Leaders need the courage to warn churches.

Eastman Kodak once ranked among America’s corporate titans. It dominated its industry, drawing talent from around the world. The company had a near monopoly on film. It was the Apple, Inc. of its time. Committed to research, Kodak even invented the digital camera. But it was too in love with film. This attachment eventually led to bankruptcy. Worse, Kodak’s founder committed suicide, leaving this note: “To my friends, my work is done. Why wait?”

Thinking back to my first church, I feared this is what people were thinking—our work is done. They did not verbalize this, but I could sense some were asking, “Why invest in a new chapter?” There’s ever the temptation to lose sight of the next generation. When we do, we create distance between ourselves and what God is doing in the present, as well as what he will do in the future.

Stagnation vs. Transformation

Immovability impedes changeability. We must ever watch for signs we are becoming less nimble, less transformational. If we lose our vigilance the world will pass us by. The warning of a formidable leader is worth putting on our walls: “When the rate of change inside an organization is slower than the rate of change outside an organization, the end of the organization is in sight.”

If we stop calling for rightful change, we will miss the new songs God is writing. We will overlook the technologies that can take ministries to another level. Worse, we will ignore the contemporary questions our congregants face.

Structures and styles, liturgies and strategies, customs and practices eventually run their course. When we stop renewing, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the natural course of aging, becoming sclerotic and inflexible. Leaders can find themselves hemmed in, subject to the social lassitude that long periods of inertia tend to create.


After a long ministry in India, missiologist Leslie Newbigin retired and decided to travel back to England using local transportation and hitchhiking. In their journey, he and his wife found only one place where they were unable to find fellowship with other Christ followers—Turkey.

The sad irony is that Turkey was once the greatest center of Christian faith. The core churches represented lampstands planted to give light (Rev. 1:20), but eventually the light went out. There are many reasons for this. Near the top are leaders who lost their nerve and churches that refused to change.

William Barclay, an earlier Scottish pastor and contemporary of Newbigin, prayed for such courage: “Protect the church from the failure to face new truth; from devotion to words and ideas which the passing of the years has rendered unintelligible; from all intellectual cowardice and from all mental lethargy and sloth.”

Unless we join in this prayer, we will miss the Spirit’s movement. We will potentially preside over the burial of the church we are called to change. When we set aside the ordinary and choose the extraordinary, the first step is to recognize this moment and have the courage to bring about a new day. We have been summoned to a movement. Listen for God. Step up and step out!

John E. Johnson is an adjunct professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He has served as a lead pastor for thirty five years, and currently is a writer working on his fourth book, as well as serving as an interim teaching pastor.

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