Along with many pastors in 1994, I watched with great curiosity as pastor and author Chuck Swindoll left First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California, after 22 years to become a seminary president. Pastor Chuck's books and broadcasts had provided "insight for living" for my life and "input for preaching" for my sermons. He was then, and remains today, one of my personal heroes and role models for effective, relevant teaching.
Six months later, over lunch with fellow pastors, the discussion turned to the search for his replacement. One pastor spoke for the group: "What idiot would follow Chuck Swindoll?" I shook my head in silent agreement: "Not me." I wasn't looking to make a move, especially to the role of sacrificial lamb!
Fast forward one year to Sunday morning, December 10, 1995. I sat anxiously holding the hand of my wife, Becky, on the front pew of the 5,000-member Fullerton church. I listened as Chuck Swindoll and my mentor, Dr. Howard Hendricks, challenged the church and me at my installation service. For a moment my mind flashed back to that lunch: "Now I know who the idiot is!" But God had clearly led, and when God leads, it is always best to follow. I had frequently taught my churches that you are safer out on a limb with God than you are seated comfortably under the tree without him.
Welcome to the outer limb.
Blessed by a healthy church
This December I will celebrate my tenth anniversary as the senior pastor in Fullerton. To the surprise of many, I have survived. The church has grown, and we are joyfully tackling the challenges of being a church in the 21st century. Why has it gone so well? A main reason is that First Free Church was and continues to be today a healthy church.
We may not be the model for the emerging church, but we are healthy at the core. We have fresh, mission-driven vision that builds on our historic strengths while encouraging new Kingdom initiatives. We are tackling some of the facility obstacles that have limited our growth. We're blessed with a great staff that is a healthy blend of the old and the new.
One third arrived during the Swindoll era, and they anchor us to the church's core values, providing stability and credibility in the midst of change. Two thirds have come since my arrival, and they've provided a fresh perspective and an unbiased look at our strengths and weaknesses. All have a spirit that is forward-thinking, creative, and unified.
Our membership has grown, and we are once again planting churches. Our giving has never been better. We are focusing outward and making new inroads into the community.
Our challenge: a healthy church
The overall health of the church was my greatest joy as I began to lead. Yet I soon discovered that our healththe fact that we did so many things wellwas also one of my greatest challenges. You see, healthy churches need change, too, but healthy churches often fail to feel the need for change.
After all, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is conventional wisdom. Yet the fact is that our church, like every good church, needs to embrace innovation. The successes of the past and overall health had masked the fact that some changes were long overdue. The church had a crowd, but it was an aging crowd. Youth were quietly exiting after high school or college. Our worship service was done with excellence, but it wasn't capturing the hearts of many.
In today's culture, every church needs a change-friendly environment that welcomes innovation and creativity. Not everything needs to be dismantled or discarded. Yet even our oldest and best ministries, such as our adult discipleship, needed honest assessment, fresh vision, and creative thinking. For each ministry, we need to "break it down," look it over, and then put it back together again continually! Keep it flexible rather than fixed, always looking for ways to improve.