Brad Powell, Senior Pastor of North Ridge Church in Plymouth, Michigan has written a new book about how to take your tired, old church and make it new again. Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping (W Publishing Group, February 2007) is 316 pages of church transition strategy illustrated by Brad’s own success at transitioning the historic Temple Baptist Church of Detroit, Michigan into North Ridge Church of Plymouth, Michigan.
The principles Brad articulates for team building, vision casting, and making progress toward change are positive and valuable. They aren’t necessarily biblical, however. But that isn’t to say they are necessarily unbiblical either. Except maybe for the rather bizzare story of God almost speaking audibly to Brad and telling him to transition the church to fit himself and then to relocate the church from Redford to Plymouth, “a community that will then be a perfect fit for both of you [Brad and Temple].” I haven’t been able to locate a verse for that one.
The formative years of my spiritual life were spent at the Temple Baptist Church of Detroit. In his book Brad variously characterizes the church that formed my spiritual life as “irrelevant,” “bound by tradition,” “declining,” “unhealthy,” “dying,” “Southern-cultured,” “defensive,” and possessed of “a lot of anger and conflict.”
From 1976 when I first began riding the bus to Temple, to 1989 when I left to take my first pastorate in northern Michigan, this irrelevant, bound by tradition, declining, unhealthy, dying, Southern-cultured, defensive church with a lot of pent up anger and conflict faithfully proclaimed the word of God from its pulpit and in its Sunday School classes, faithfully trained teenagers and young adults in soul-winning visitation, and remained committed to the timeless truth of God’s word in the midst of a changing culture and declining city. I owe my spiritual life to a church Brad Powell dismisses as “irrelevant.” Temple Baptist Church was certainly relevant to me. And history bears out that prior to 1991 Temple was significantly relevant to many who owe their spiritual lives to its ministry.
Brad has always dismissed the history of Temple Baptist Church as irrelevant, which is surprising since his own success at North Ridge is due in large measure to the foundation laid by others throughout Temple’s long history. For 40 years Dr. G. B. Vick labored as the faithful pastor of Temple, yet Brad can only say of this great leader and pastor that “he managed the ministry with consistent excellence and relative success,” (italics mine) even though, as Brad characterizes Dr. Vick, he was not the communicator or innovator the previous pastor was. Brad has spent his entire ministry at North Ridge building on the foundation other men laid, especially those of this mediocre leader, Dr. G. B. Vick.
There is no question that Temple was in decline and dying when Brad arrived in the early 90s. Brad and I fundamentally disagree as to why. He points to “banjos playing in the basement” to illustrate the church’s cultural irrelevance. I would point to the failure of the church’s leadership to biblically deal with sin, both among themselves and the members of the congregation. Temple died because the Spirit abandoned it, not because the culture found it irrelevant.
I would argue that Temple’s problem wasn’t its inability to connect with the culture. It had succeeded in connecting with the culture for 70 years before Brad arrived. The gospel has always been and always will be foolish to the culture, but that doesn’t make the message irrelevant. It’s not preaching, or hymns, or traditional Sunday School, or soulwinning visitation, that kill a church. It’s sin left unconfronted that kills a church. The pastor who immediately preceded Brad resigned because of a “moral failure.” God knows, plenty of others should have hit the altar that day with confessions of failures, moral and otherwise, of their own. But rather than point to spiritual decadence as the source of Temple’s decline, Brad blew past that and focused on “banjos in the basement” as the culprit. And, of course, if indeed the decline were due to “banjos playing in the basement” and stern looking “arms crossed ushers,” it would be easier to convince the people that the problem was “relevance” rather than sin.
But if the problem is spiritual, well the answer to that problem is a different one altogether. Dealing with a spiritual crisis doesn’t require abandoning the historic biblical principles that got you where you are by throwing them into the same pile with banjos playing in the basement. A spiritual crisis requires repentance and confession and a recommitment to those historic principles. But if your goal is to tip sacred cows (like banjos, organs, and arms-crossed ushers) into a Golden Calf, some things that really aren’t sacred cows (like expository, evangelistic preaching and worship music with a solid theological foundation) get labled sacred cows so as to faciliate your goal of Golden Calf forming.
Brad diagnosed cultural irrelevance as the disease that killed Temple and he presecribed a heavy dose of cultural capitulation as the remedy. It worked. And in a culture that values quantity more than quality, relevance more than spiritual depth, the fact that it worked is all that matters. For Jesus’ attitude toward quantity over quality see Matthew 7:21-23 (note the words ‘many’ and ‘knew’ and you tell me what Jesus values more: what you produce or who you know – numbers or relationship?).