There are three primary participants in a local church. God, the pastor and the congregation.
Trying to turn a church from unhealthy to healthy without all three in full cooperation, will lead to frustration, failure and heartache.
Knowing and expanding the zone where the hearts of the pastor and congregation meet up with God’s heart is essential for a successful church turnaround.
This is especially important in a small church. The larger the church, the more likely the heart of the congregation will be an extension of the pastor, often expressed in a mission or vision statement that was crafted by the pastor or leadership team.
But in a small church, the congregation has a personality and a will of its own based on their history and their relationships. Ignore it at your peril, pastor.
But when the hearts of all three match up just right, there’s nothing like it.
Finding God’s Heart Together
As you can see in this Venn diagram, there’s a place where all three circles (or hearts) intersect.
But there are also portions of God’s heart that neither the pastor nor the church have caught up to yet. There always will be.
And there are portions of the church’s and the pastor’s heart that aren’t in line with God’s heart or with each other.
Each of these overlapping zones (numbers 2 – 4) has unique dangers.
Let’s look at all four of them, one at a time.
1. The Sweet Spot: God, the Church & the Pastor’s Hearts Meet
This is the goal we all ought to be aiming for. The spot where the pastor is working within his gifting, the congregation is being strengthened and utilized, and God’s will is being done.
But let’s not be naïve about it. We will seldom have more than a tenuous and shifting grasp on this. And it needs to be constantly monitored, prayed over and never taken for granted.
But it can be found, expanded and utilized to bring glory to God and to reach the people he has called us to minister to.
In an unhealthy church, this spot may be so small it’s hard to find. If the church is in bad enough shape, it may have disappeared altogether. This is where knowing what to do with sections 2 – 4 becomes critical.
Let’s look at each of them, then we’ll come back to Zone 1 at the end.
2. The Default: God & the Pastor, but not the Church
This is the overlap where the pastor sees God’s heart, knows it is God’s heart, and finds it resonating within their own heart, but the church doesn’t know it. Yet.
This is the default most pastors gravitate to, but it may also be the most frustrating place for a pastor to live. After all, you know what God’s heart is! It’s not a mirage or wishful thinking. But the church Just. Can’t. See. It!
So many things can go wrong here if we’re not careful. It’s possible to know the right thing and to do the right thing, but to do it in the wrong way. And there’s no spot where we’re in greater danger of that happening than here.
I’m referring to this overlap first, because this is where most pastors begin. But if you’re in the beginning of a church turnaround I don’t suggest you start here. Start in the next zone.
3. The Listening Place: God & the Church, but not the Pastor
Pastors are not the only people who can discern God’s will for our church. A mature, healthy pastor will realize this.
Too many pastors start (and end) the turnaround process by trying to bring the congregation into their default setting (#2). After all, it is God’s will – the church just needs to catch up, right?
But what about the places where the church has God’s heart, but the pastor needs to catch up? This is where we need to listen more than we talk. Especially if we’re new to the church. We need to take the time to hear the mutual thumping of God’s heart with the church’s heart. It is his church, after all.
If we listen to God and the congregation first, then allow our heart to be drawn into the place where God’s heart and the church’s heart have already met, we can find the quickest, simplest way to start expanding the Sweet Spot.
The congregation needs to see the pastor, not just as someone trying to pull them into his zone, but as someone who understands and adapts to the place where God has already met the rest of the church.
Then, when the pastor asks the congregation to come over to Zone 2, they’re more likely to listen – because their heart has already been heard.
4. The Danger Zone: The Church & the Pastor, but not God
Oh, but this zone just… Feels. So. Riiiiight!
The church and the pastor are getting along. They have a common vision. Everything should be working. The danger happens when it does.
This is also where I believe most churches hit a spiritual plateau. Everything seems great. People are getting along. Systems are smooth. But they’re slowly dying inside. And they don’t see the iceberg coming.
And why wouldn’t it work? There’s nothing the devil likes more than a church that feels great about itself, but is doing absolutely nothing spiritually. They’re in crisis, but don’t even know it, so they don’t try to fix it. Years can go by like this. They might even grow numerically and be asked to teach other churches how they did it.
This is where the closed door is often God’s greatest blessing. One of my regular prayers as a pastor is “God, if we see a common goal, but it isn’t your goal for us, stop us dead in our tracks.”
The Goal: Expand the Sweet Spot
Let’s end where we started. In Zone 1 – the Sweet Spot.
Never try to take the ideas from Zone 4 and move them into God’s heart. God has this stubborn streak in him, where he refuses to take ideas – even good ideas – that start with us, and put his seal of approval on them.
We need to start with God’s heart.
It’s important to ignore Zone 4 entirely. The work takes place in Zones 2 & 3. The rewards are in an expanded Zone 1.
The ultimate goal for any healthy church is to discover more of God’s heart together. To have fewer places where our desires are different than God’s desires.
It is a constant challenge. With significant risks. But the rewards are more than worth it.
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