Sunday, December 17, 2006

Radical Pastors Turn Everything Over to God

The following article holds some comments from my pastor, Rev. Craig Willingham. I am posting this article for my friends and church family to view, but hope you all enjoy.

Radical pastors turn everything over to God
By Bob Burchette
Special to the Recorder

GREENSBORO - The panel members at a Baptist State Convention (BSC) breakout session didn't seem like radical pastors. None had swallowed gold fish, wrestled a bear or landed on their church grounds in a hot air balloon.

No gimmicks to increase church attendance for these four men.

Craig Willingham of Berry's Grove Baptist Church near Timberlake, Charles Royal of First Baptist in Morehead City, Bill Grisham of First Baptist in Rocky Mount and lay leader Connell Purvis of First Baptist in Washington agreed that moving closer to God and helping their congregations become more spiritual has meant turning everything over to God.
Hardly seems like a radical idea.

But the discussion at the Nov. 14 breakout session at the convention left a consensus that these leaders are a different breed than the typical "programmed" Baptist leaders who simply know how to "do church."

"Prayer" and "change" are key words in their churches.

The catchy "Being a Radical Pastor in Today's Church Culture" session was the brainchild of Neal Eller Jr., the leader for state Baptists' Vital Leadership Community. Eller said the panel was composed of men who exemplify leadership.

Eller said there is more to leading a church than managing ministries. Many congregations are "still on milk,'' he said, meaning they are infants in their relationship to God. "We have too many swimming around in shallow water," Eller said.

Pastors need to invoke change to help "baby" Christians - even entire congregations - develop a closer relationship with God, Purvis said. He has seen it work in a big way in his coastal congregation since his church began its journey, which is part of the BSC's "Pursuing Vital Leadership" effort.

Don't dare call this a "program."

The ministry, headed by Eller as a representative of the BSC, encourages churches to change the traditional way they have being worshipping and "doing church."

The change begins with a pastor understanding that the congregation must be prepared to go on a journey that begins with a look at what God has in store for it, Eller said. "Those kinds of pastors have an understanding of casting a vision."

To change methodology or philosophy of how a church worships is radical in Baptist circles. The panel agreed that traditional leadership is programmed to conduct the business and the worship of the church in the same way that it has been done for many years.

Pastors who dare suggest changes in the way the church conducts ministry may be considered radical.

"I never knew I was a radical pastor until I agreed to be on this panel," said Grisham, a veteran pastor who said it is important to "be God centered - not people centered" in ministry. Normally, church leaders are driven by people in how they minister, he said.

Others on the panel chuckled at the idea that they are "radicals,'' but the more they talked, it was obvious they are not typical leaders simply "doing church."

During the panel discussion and in later interviews, panel members said their churches have become more spiritual as the way they conduct worship services has focused on prayer rather than traditional worship services.

Grisham's mid-week service has increased dramatically in attendance since it became a real time for prayer rather than just a preaching service, Eller said.

"We have discovered pastors who have clear vision, strong leadership competencies and spiritual vitality can turn congregations around,'' Eller said.

Those were the type of men he selected for the panel discussion. "We are trying to help churches have a kingdom vision," Eller said.

Grisham said that how the church ministers must change. This doesn't mean that the people are to be ignored but God must be the focus of the church. Prayer is the key to a church's spiritual development, he said.

The Pursuing Vital Leadership emphasis is centered on prayer groups, and helping people identify their gifts - what they do best, Purvis said.

Royal, who is pastor of a 133-year-old church, said, "I listen (to God); I need to know who I am. I want my people to listen to God and the Holy Spirit."

He added, "Often, as pastors we get impatient with our church members. We need to wait on God."

Eller invoked two major questions for the three pastors, and also had a question for the only layman on the panel:

How do you love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength?

What did you have to do in your own life to become a radical pastor?

"The panel was unanimous in answering the first question: nobody arrives at a full understanding of that question. Being a Christian is a journey and the further we go down the road the bigger God gets," Purvis said. "The further we go down the road on our journey, we see that He is an awesome God!"

Willingham added, "The idea is that we are on a journey and we don't necessarily know where this journey is going to take us. We're depending on God to take us where we're going - the journey never ends until Christ's return.

"I have to determine what my part of the journey is and see what we can accomplish together as a church. You can't just 'do' church; that's not going to accomplish God's great plan of redemption."

Willingham said he doesn't consider this approach to ministry "radical at all."
But resisting the temptation "to go along with the status quo" can make a pastor unpopular, he said. "I've realized that being popular is not my goal. Everybody likes to be liked but I need to be led by Christ, and everybody may not like that."

It's a challenge to change the mindset of a 118-year-old rural church when "outsiders" start moving into the community, Willingham said. At age 35, he's been pastor of the church for seven years, and said that many new people moving into his rural area "presents lots of opportunities and a lot of challenges. We must change or cease to exist."

Willingham likes Pursuing Vital Leadership, which has "helped us to review the life cycle of the church and have a better understanding of where you've been and where you are going."
Eller's asked Purvis: "As a lay person, when your pastor (Jimmy Moore) became radical, how did that influence you? What did it do in your life?"

Purvis said it not only rejuvenated him spiritually, but got him excited about his journey with Christ, and excited about the spiritual relationships that developed in his church.

The church also has changed dramatically, he said. Purvis has seen his church make great spiritual strides during the three years since Pursuing Vital Leadership was implemented. "We as Baptists are programmed for programs and that is one of the difficulties. There has to be an educational process that Pursuing Vital Leadership is not just another program. It's not a program. That is one of the hurdles to get over.

"It has changed the life of our church. The staff deprogrammed the programs. Now you get on your knees and ask 'what would the Lord have us to do?' The key is prayer: how can you know God's direction unless the entire congregation is seeking that through their relationship to God?"
The church even laid aside its denominational Sunday school literature for eight weeks and did a spiritual gifts study - "Making My Ministry Vital" - that was designed specifically for the Washington church.

"People who had casual relationships for 30 or 40 years now have meaningful relationships with people they've been in church with all of their lives. The trust level has gone up. We have found something in common; we all deal with the same problems - the big C, cancer; some without jobs or whatever."

He added, "There is a freedom from the church staff on down, and an encouragement to pursue the passions of your own heart. That freedom has allowed us to move away from religion and have a closer fellowship with Christ. It has strengthened our fellowship."

Pursuing Vital Leadership, which suggests commitment by at least 18 church members who divide into groups of three to pray for at least 100 minutes for 10 weeks, has "generated so much excitement at the Washington church," Purvis said.

"The culture has changed and as a church we have lost our focus - the focus must be on Jesus. We've got to be retrained to deal with the culture," Purvis said.
And that's a radical idea after all for a "programmed" church.

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Bob Burchette is a retired editor/writer from the News & Record in Greensboro.)

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