The call to ministry is a call to confrontation and controversy. It’s impossible to read the Bible and come to another conclusion. Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and John each faced their share of conflict from within the community of God’s people, and from without. From above, they cheer us on in our own races, and we must press on for the joy of whatever cross we have been called to carry, following in our Savior’s track.
With all the opposition we face in ministry, it’s tempting to play it safe. Evasive maneuvers often seem like the best course of action. Mitigate the risk, and live to minister another day.
The irony is that while avoiding church conflict buys you time now, long-term—as I hope to show you—it guarantees failure. And anything that guarantees failure is the opposite of safe. It’s the ultimate risk, because you’re betting you will be the one-in-a-million pastor whose church problems go away all by themselves.
If playing it safe isn’t safe in church anymore, then what is? Risk is. In ministry, risky is the new safe.
Has it ever been riskier to hold theologically conservative beliefs? A contingent of your church may be threatening to leave over your position on hell or homosexuality. Your denominational standing might hang in the balance over insisting that Jesus really is the only way to the Father. In the here and now, adopting a moderate view—or letting your church adopt such a view, while you personally maintain yours—would make these issues go away.
We don’t need to guess whether maintaining a conservative theological position is best long term. Church history has played this saga out for us already, and has proven that the riskiest theological path is the one that veers left. One century later, look at the mainline denominations. One decade later, look at the emerging church. They took the risk that budging on the authority of God’s word would keep them relevant in our culture. They lost.
What did Paul tell Timothy? “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for by doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). In the scope of weeks, decades, and eternity, souls are safest—both yours and those of your church—when you, the pastor, stick to what the Bible clearly teaches.
We’ve just seen how pastors need to not change. For other pastors, change is precisely what their church needs. But the church is against it. They haven’t added a new song to their worship service since “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.” The extent of their social media presence is the marquee on the road. They haven’t met a need in their local community since the church was founded.
But if the pastor tried to change any of these things, the whole church would go bananas. “We like our church the way it is!” Yet the pastor knows that if changes don’t happen, the church will eventually close.
Short term, it seems risky to make changes at a church. Contentious congregational meetings will ensue. Someone will sneak into the room where the letters are and put a mean message about you on the marquee.
But the real risk is not to try for change. Will anyone (whether believer or unbeliever) not be repelled by an inward focused, uncontextualized church? Will young people who don’t want to waste their life stick around, hoping that the church will someday come to its missional senses?
That’s a risky bet. It’s more likely that the visitors will look for other churches and the younger people will switch churches. The people who stay will not change, and the church will die with them.
But the last thing we need is less churches. We can’t afford to let another one die and get turned into a microbrewery or coffee shop.
What is one change you could make that would breathe new life into your church? Despite what opposition you experience now, it’s your best chance of securing your church’s future.
Did you know it’s possible to maintain your beliefs in the midst of a rapidly changing culture without offending anyone? All you have to do is veer away from passages that are controversial. You know what you believe about Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1, but your church doesn’t have to. It’s sticking to your convictional guns, but never pulling the trigger.
But steering away from sermons that might get you into trouble poses serious risk for you. Consider what Paul said to the Ephesian church in Acts 20:26-27, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of everyone’s blood, for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.” Paul didn’t avoid anything. He preached the whole enchilada.
It’s not worth it to avoid conflict in the here-and-now if it means you will have blood on your hands later. In the near future, it seems riskier to preach passages that you know will rile people up. They might leave your church. Or stay to stir up division. But in light of the stricter judgment coming to pastors (James 3:1), it’s safer to have all that chaos if it comes with a clean conscience and clean hands.
Risky doesn’t mean stupid
Pastors can’t avoid risk in ministry. It’s simply a matter of whether you are risking something temporal or eternal, and whether you are looking short term or long term.
But the necessity of risk doesn’t give you a green light to be foolish. Stick to your theological convictions, yes, but don’t pick fights and be patient with people who disagree with you. Introduce change at your church, yes, but not all at once. Preach the controversial passages, yes, but hit them as you preach through books expositionally, rather than hitting the hot topics week by week.
And when it seems hard, even impossible, remember there’s a great cloud of pastors in heaven cheering you on.