For the last eight years, I have been working in churches that were in need of revitalization, or breakout. I know this doesn’t make me an expert, but it has given me field experience. In addition, for the last three years I have been intensely studying the condition of the American church and her impact in contemporary culture.
I have come across many success stories of pastors who led their church to positive breakout. But it seems that for every story of success, there are nine stories of struggle and heartache. In all honesty, leading a church to breakout is like trying to climb Mount Everest. It’s daunting and extremely difficult.
In my last column on Nehemiah, I explained how his breakdown laid the foundation for the breakout of his people. But that’s not the end of the story.
Nehemiah also faced many obstacles in leading the breakout. The king (his boss) had already stopped the rebuilding of the wall years earlier. Nehemiah hadn’t led this kind of work before. He faced a long, dangerous journey to get to the people, and once he arrived, he met a discouraged people in need of motivation and organization.
Just like Nehemiah, those who want to lead a church to breakout will face a variety of obstacles. As leaders, we face obstacles of perceptions, practices, poor theology, and people’s resistance to change. For many, the perception is that the church is fine—we’re paying the bills and ministries are still running. When it comes to practices, over time churches tend to focus on insiders, not outsiders, which can lead to neglecting the building, failing to create hospitable environments, and lacking a defined process for connecting new people.
Poor theology also can be an obstacle. Without being aware, a congregation can lose their passion for the centrality of Jesus and his gospel, their urgency to call people to repentance and salvation, and their missional posture towards the community and the nations.
One of the toughest obstacles is leading people to embrace change. I have found many church members want growth (or, at the very least, they don’t mind it), but don’t want things to change. In short, leading breakout isn’t easy, especially in light of the various obstacles. Nehemiah knew this as well. He navigated through the obstacles by way of breakthrough—an “aha moment.”
His prayer, starting in Neh. 1:4, gives us at least three principles of breakthrough that have implications for our ministry today:
God is the breakthrough power. Immediately after hearing the condition of the people, Nehemiah went to the Lord. “Let Your eyes be open and Your ears be attentive to hear Your servant’s prayer,” he says in verse 6. “…I confess the sins we have committed against You.”
This is paramount for church and denominational leaders to understand, especially given the fact that we live in a self-help culture where there is no shortage of books, conferences, leadership podcasts, and workshops about how churches can breakout from their unhealthy condition. While there’s nothing wrong with many of these resources, I have to constantly remind myself that these are supplements to breakout, not the source.
Humility is the breakthrough position. Nehemiah’s prayer reflects his understanding of God’s position and power, and that he and Israel are His servants (Neh 1:5, 6,10). Our prayers should reflect God’s transcendent position in relations to us—how great, gracious, awesome, faithful, and powerful he is. In addition, our prayers should reflect our humble position to God—a position that’s here to serve him and be used by him to do what he has put in our hearts.
When it comes to leading our churches to breakout may we never confuse our role with God’s—we are simply conduits by which He works to bring his people where He wants them to be.
Faithfulness is the breakthrough pattern. In Nehemiah’s prayer, we see that his going to the Father wasn’t a one-time deal; he did this “for days.” Scholars note that four months passed between chapter one and two. Thus, for over four months, Nehemiah faithfully goes to the Lord, humbling and submitting himself to God’s will and leading. His continued faithfulness reflects both the seriousness of leading a breakout and his belief that only God could do it.
If we desire to lead our churches to breakout, not only must we have a breakdown, but we must have a breakthrough—an “aha moment” were we realize God is the only one who can breakthrough the obstacles we face.
Josh Laxton is lead pastor of Western Oaks Baptist Church in Springfield. His first column on Nehemiah appeared in the July 28 issue of the Illinois Baptist.