For many years, I was so consumed with leading our church that I didn’t pollinate my mind and heart with new ideas. I thought I didn’t have time to go to conferences, and I didn’t want to be away from our church to travel and see other churches. For a long time, the gas in my tank was what I learned from my mentor, J. Don George. The concepts and principles I gained from my time with him took me a long way, but I didn’t invest in refilling the tank.
When we introspect, we can identify the flaws that hold us back or that might cause us to forfeit the progress we’ve made. Relational interactions—the “iron sharpening iron” connections—stimulate our creativity, deepen our passions, expand our vision and instill hope in us for a better future.
For almost my entire pastoral career, I spent time with a few men who were (and are) legends in our denomination. During these years, God was raising up a lot of dynamic young leaders, but I didn’t rub shoulders with them—at least to any significant extent. These young leaders were experts in understanding the shifts in our culture, how to communicate the gospel to young people, and how to make disciples of young men and women in a world with many competing voices. They were learning, growing, and adapting so that they could be more effective; but I was stuck in the past.
I had opportunities to acquire insights and to grow, but I didn’t. For many years, I didn’t put myself in a place to think, feel, talk and act differently than I did when I first became a pastor. I didn’t learn, and I didn’t grow. I got stuck.
NOT CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
If culture hadn’t changed during the 80s, 90s, 00s, and 10s, being stuck in the past wouldn’t have mattered much at all. But, as you may recall, there were a few changes during those decades! Where was I during all this? With my head down working like crazy to grow our church. I wasn’t paying attention—and if the reality of a change surfaced, my reaction was to blast it instead of asking, “What does this change mean to people who need Christ? What does it mean to people who follow Christ? How can I speak powerfully and graciously to this issue?”
We probably had the last choir in any church in America (maybe not, but it seemed that way). They sang beautifully, but people expected to sing along with what they heard on Christian radio stations. When we finally made a change to “modern music,” we were still ten years behind other churches. You may have seen an old person wearing young, hip clothes. That’s what our church looked like—we were trying hard to be cool, but we didn’t make it.
In the worlds of business and the church, leaders have been moving toward collaborative teams. Writers like Patrick Lencioni, John Kotter, John Maxwell and many others explain how to get the best out of people by empowering them and believing in them; but I was still using a top-down, hierarchical, authoritarian management style.
People right out of college who came onto our staff were very teachable and compliant, and they didn’t seem to mind me telling them everything to think, say, or do; but when we hired people who’d been successful somewhere else and implied that our way was the only way—that everything they’d done before should be forgotten—we inadvertently sent them the message that we didn’t value their experience and skills. I made all the decisions in their areas of ministry, and I kept track of all the details. They weren’t growing because I wasn’t letting them grow, and they knew it. They felt that I was taking them backward, and their motivation level plummeted.
My son, Galen, who is now the lead pastor at Cornerstone, recently hired a marketing company to analyze our church’s image in the Nashville area. After they conducted a thorough study, the company reported, “The reputation of your church is nothing like the reality of what we see here. Your dad was a hardnosed, politically partisan, in-your-face, call-you-out and call-you-names-on-television kind of pastor. He attracted a certain profile of people . . . people who didn’t mind being yelled at and being told they were messing up. But Galen, you’re a loving, compassionate man, and the church is reaching out more than ever to care for people in the community. We need to do something about the church’s public image.”
Galen is much more caring than me. When I see people standing on street corners holding signs and asking for handouts, I want to roll down the window and tell them, “Get a job!” I truly believe the welfare system in our country is broken, and I’m convinced it often does more harm than good; but I should have been much more measured in sharing my views.
I’ll admit that I seldom made my case very attractively when I spoke, especially to those who are tenderhearted. My ill-advised method of communicating traditional American values caused a lot of needless damage to our church’s reputation. Some of what I said was genuinely over-the-top, but much of it was true. Still, my communication was deeply flawed and hurtful to a lot of people.
I had every intention of building bridges to the African-American community to tell them about Jesus and lead them to faith, but my antiquated thinking and my style of communication caused them to stay away in droves. I didn’t sound like a loving, inclusive pastor who sees all races as created by God for His glory. Bridges and walls are both made from concrete, but the forms I poured it into made far too many walls that kept people out.
When our church was stuck in neutral in about 2010, I hired a company out of Dallas to do some research in our area and give us advice about how to start growing again. I was willing to do almost anything, as long as it honored God. A few weeks later, they presented their assessment: “Pastor, the average age of the people in your church has increased by five years in only the last four years. You aren’t attracting many young families because the facilities for your children’s ministry are out of date. Your worship center is very nice, but your facilities tell parents that their children aren’t that important to you. They can find far better environments for their kids somewhere else, and that’s the most important factor for many of them.”
I swallowed hard, but they weren’t finished. “You also have some children’s staff members who are, we’ll say, problematic.” They didn’t have to say another word. I had hired a guy to work in our children’s ministry who was a retired mixed martial arts fighter. The kids loved him, but the parents were terrified when they saw him. I had hired another man who owned the largest tattoo parlor in Nashville. He was covered in very interesting skin art. Again, the kids were fascinated, but the parents weren’t terribly impressed with my selection of personnel.
I thought I was progressive and ahead of the curve because I’d hired cutting-edge people who were rough around the edges but who had come to Christ and had fantastic testimonies; but that’s the reasoning of tent revivals 50 years ago, not a church in a suburban, middle-class community.
I wish I could stop there in my list of boneheaded decisions, but there are more . . . many more. I had an ironclad law that no kids under two years old were allowed in the sanctuary during any service. I made this rule crystal clear because I didn’t want any baby’s crying to interrupt worship.
The consultant asked me, “Do you have any idea how many young couples left your church over this policy? Do you know how many walked out of services with babies in their arms last Sunday because an usher or greeter told them they had to put their child in the nursery?” This rule didn’t hurt our church for about 20 years, but in the early 2000s, the culture shifted to be more accepting of children in every setting, including church services. I was still living in the past with my traditional, institutional thinking, and I missed the opportunity to attract and involve a lot of young families.
CHANGE STARTS WITH ME
My rough background and my age conspired to keep me mired in the past. But actually, I don’t want to blame anyone or anything for my intransigence. Other pastors studied the culture and found ways to communicate in meaningful ways as the times changed, but I didn’t. The consultants who came to our church saw that my leadership wasn’t going to work in the future. We had to change, but the church couldn’t change until I was committed to change.
The startling revelation that Cornerstone was slowly dying was the spark that ignited a transformation in me. When I heard them use the word “death” several times, it got my attention. If I didn’t get a better grasp of the contemporary culture, we were going to end up with a few blue-haired people whose goal for each day was finding their dentures.
I’ve applied a passage out of Hebrews to my need to be more observant of the shifts in our culture. The writer explained that Jesus was “according to the order of Melchizedek,” both priest and king, but he chided the readers because they weren’t studying and weren’t perceptive of the application of truth. He told them they were still like infants, needing milk when they should be eating solid food. Then he wrote, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
When our senses are trained, we’re sensitive, we’re perceptive, and we can tell how the culture is changing, so we can shape our communication to be effective. Leaders need more than institutional thinking in modern times. Change is happening at an incredible pace. More than ever, we need to read authors who understand what’s going on, we need to listen to podcasts by perceptive leaders, and we need to hang out with people who won’t settle for things that worked in the past.
I’ve come very late to this party, but I’m here now. Maybe my struggle to relate to the new generations will provide some comfort, if not practical tools for growth.
If we “dance only with the ones who brung us,” we’ll remain backward in our thinking (like that line!), and we’ll fail to connect with younger generations. If you’re a young leader, you’re probably already connected to your peers, so reach out to older people who have experience walking with God and wisdom you can glean. Their style of ministry may not be very hip, but they have treasured personal traits you value: integrity, passion and tenacity.
When I realized that I hadn’t cross-pollinated nearly enough, I asked Sam Chand, “Will you connect me with ten leaders anywhere in the world? I want to travel to visit them and learn all I can from them.” I invited them to preach at Cornerstone, and I met with them to download everything they could teach me. Then, I traveled to their churches—from New Zealand to South Africa to every part of America—and saw how God was using them; They are some of the most amazing leaders in the world, and my horizons expanded. They taught me to see the church, individuals, and God in new ways.
I attended a service at Paul DeJong’s church in New Zealand and saw something I’d never imagined: the drummer had on ragged cutoff shorts and a tank top, and he had long, ratty hair. As the band played, thousands of people passionately worshipped God. Sam sat next to me. He leaned over and said, “You’re having a hard time with this, aren’t you?”
I whispered, “Sam, they don’t even have a dress code!”
Paul overheard me and smiled. “Oh, yes we do. No swimsuits.”
You’re probably thinking, “Man, Maury, you’re so stiff you’re going to break!” Exactly. I had to get away from the 20 acres of paradise known as Cornerstone Church to see how someone else thinks, prays, and leads a culturally relevant, incredibly effective church.
Was it a crisis that our church had plateaued? Yes, absolutely. If an organization isn’t growing, it’ll start declining; and sooner or later, it’ll lose any semblance of effectiveness. When that happened to Cornerstone, at first, I panicked. Then, I looked for help. I learned the most valuable lessons of my life only when desperation opened my heart to people who could teach me.
Subscribe to magazines or blogs that keep you informed about trends in the culture. You may not agree with everything you read, but you can be sure that many of the people who are listening to you agree with some of the things being said and written. As you become more perceptive about what’s going on, your communication will be filled with wisdom and compassion, righteousness and justice. No matter what, never stop learning.
One of the primary roles of leaders is to tailor their message to a changing culture. If they don’t keep their eyes open, they won’t keep up with the change, and they’ll become irrelevant.
I was confident the model of ministry that had worked in the past was the only one that could work in the present and the future. But I was wrong. It took far too long for me to see the importance of knowing what needed to shift and what should remain unchanging.
This article was extracted from Issue 4 (Winter 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
Maury Davis served as the lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Nashville, Tennessee, for 27 years. He now travels the world coaching and consulting pastors, business professionals and individuals on how to experience personal growth and how to take their churches or organizations to the next level. This article is adapted from his latest book, Hindsight 20/20.
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